A pole vaulter without a pole: How Obiena became a SEA Games medalist

Alexx Esponga
A pole vaulter without a pole: How Obiena became a SEA Games medalist
Ernest John Obiena may get rejected, fail or even run out of funding but he won't quit. He has always found a way – for his country and the sport

MANILA, Philippines – Ernest John Obiena never won a Palarong Pambansa gold medal.

In fact, the first time he tried to get past the stiff competition in the regionals and gain a spot in the country’s biggest sporting event, Obiena failed.

Though he was – or so he thought – a good athlete who could train like the champions, and had the determination to learn new tactics, fate was too selfish.

He daydreamed about being a Palaro gold medalist but some dreams don’t come true.

The loss was more than just a petty heartbreak; the 14-year-old Obiena felt like he lost a first love.

“I was thinking at that time, ‘Maybe I’m not really gifted in sports,’” said Obiena in a telephone interview with Rappler.

But even as a young athlete, Obiena knew it wasn’t going to be easy and understood that all good things come to those who persevere.

His father, who also served as his coach, taught him to wait—wait with heart and a burning desire to be the best.

“As a kid, I learned how to learn the process. Basically, I was investing to learn the principle and technique of the sport while everyone else was doing something else,” Obiena said.

“I believed that one day, I’ll be there.”

True enough, Obiena never won a Palaro gold medal. 

He was bound for something far greater.

Through the years

When he was in high school, Obiena was included in the 100 and 400 meter hurdles event and represented the University of Santo Tomas in the UAAP.

At age 15, Obiena qualified for Palaro’s pole vault and competed twice in the tournament. Five years later, he held the national record in pole vault and collected several international titles including a silver in the 2015 Southeast Asian Games.

Currently, he is completing his training for the upcoming 29th SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in Italy.

“When I started, pole vault was a dying sport. In the competition, there would be 5 guys jumping,” Obiena shared. “Now, we’re having quite a lot – 12 in the UAAP and that’s just in Manila.”

“When you compare it, the sport is healthier now.”

Lack of equipment

Despite the growth in numbers of pole vaulters, Obiena shared the lack of facilities the country has to train competitors – this explained the need for the 21-year-old Obiena to train overseas.

“The knowledge is one thing but the facilities need to be improved. In the Philippines, I don’t have a gymnastics area. Track and field, we only have one track that is good and the equipment isn’t complete.”

“When I train in the Philippines, it’s practically finding something with what you have. It’s not as good as when you use a certain equipment, it does what you need.”

Obiena has been travelling abroad alongside world-class trainer Vitaly Petrov who formerly mentored two-time Track & Field News Athlete of the Year Sergey Bubka.

“Wherever he (Petrov) goes, I go. I train with one coach. He is one of the bests,” Obiena said. “Here in Europe, the sport is also big. The area where I train, the Olympic champion trains here also.”

In return, the champion Obiena looks forward to imparting all the things he learned from all the experiences to the next generation pole vaulters.

Funds for athletes

The International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF), the international governing body for athletics, generously sponsored Obiena’s training abroad the first time after they saw his potential.

In his second year, Obiena received help from IAAF and Philippine Amateur Track and Field Association (PATAFA) but he had to raise funds to cover some expenses.

“It’s not every year that PATAFA has a budget for athletes like me,” Obiena said.

“I’m not sure if PATAFA will reimburse [this year]. If they have the money, PATAFA will try to return the money but if not, I have to raise my own funds to cover up all my expenses.”

Somehow, the pressure of needing more funds became even more dire.

After a bronze finish at the Asian Athletics Championship in Bhubaneswar, India this month, Obiena found his bag opened and tattered in the airport on his way back to Italy. Upon checking, a total of 8 poles were damaged including his favorite piece on which signatures of loved ones and colleagues were inked.

“I remember loading the poles with the airport stickers ‘fragile’ attached to the bag. When we arrived in Rome, my pole case had cuts in the middle and the lock is missing. When I saw my poles, they were broken.

“I can’t use it anymore.”

Obiena shared PATAFA will pay for 5 of the poles though the association has not yet sent their confirmation yet.

“I asked people for donations if they could help me because I can’t train without my poles. I put everything into good faith – that when people see what you’re doing and if you’re doing it for the country, they will try to help you,” Obiena said.

“It’s working slowly but it is better than nothing.”

Though struggling, Obiena won’t give up – especially not when the country needs him the most. The times are tough but Obiena will always look back to the moment when he first tried pole vault: “I felt like flying.”

Obiena is patiently waiting. He is familiar with how this game goes and he’s excited to soar once again. The champion knows: he is bound for greater things. – Rappler.com

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