The GAME proudly celebrates EJ Obiena’s recent 32nd Southeast Asian Games gold medal victory — another successful step in his journey to the 2024 Olympics.
Every time EJ Obiena plants his pole and takes off for a high five- to six-meter jump, he becomes an embodiment of the Philippine flag, raised up for all to see, taking center stage in some of the biggest international sporting tournaments in the world.
This is something that he takes immense pride in.
“Every time I wear the flag, I’m not just representing me. I’m representing millions of people, all over the world,” EJ proudly told The GAME.
Wearing the flag, indeed, he not only represents the millions of Filipinos all around the world, but he also imparts to each and every one of them a sense of pride that he carries himself. And this year, especially, he has done this over and over again, winning medal after medal, with his most recent victory coming from the 32nd Southeast Asian Games.
News of his win at the recently concluded SEA Games came as some sort of déjà vu. He won the gold medal for the men’s pole vault and set a new meet record — again. For context, this was a feat that EJ achieved in 2019 when he won gold and set a new record of 5.45 meters. In the following edition, he defeated his own record, clearing 5.46 meters in a single attempt.
This year, he defended his gold to reach a three-peat in the SEA Games and set a new record once again, clearing 5.65 meters.
But even though each year has brought the same headline with EJ, just with better records, every jump tells a different story. And this year, EJ is currently writing the story of his journey back to the Olympics — a dream of his that comes with big commitments, challenging hurdles, and a heavy responsibility.
For an athlete of a very niche sport, pole vaulter EJ Obiena has become one of the Philippines’ most-talked-about and most-followed athletes over the last few years. He has made pole vaulting one of the most-followed track and field events among Filipino sports fans, and this was especially felt this year when EJ opened 2023 going on an incredible run of medals in the indoor pole vaulting season.
He kicked it off in Germany, where he earned a solid start with a silver medal from the Internationales Springer-Meeting in Cottbus, clearing a height of 5.77 meters. Just a few days later, he already earned his first gold of the season after jumping 5.82 meters in the Perche en Or indoor tournament in France.
Following these opening medals came a barrage of even more for EJ in major tournaments all over Europe.
Indeed, it was challenging to keep up with all the headlines. And from the outside looking in, each event can seem relatively straightforward — he makes his jumps and he wins his medals, then he’s off to the next. But EJ told us himself, “There are different stories with every medal and every competition comes with so many variables.”
Behind each medal, EJ has attempts that he misses. There are competitions where he trails from behind and must achieve a comeback. In some cases this season, he did not have his coach present to support him. There are long bus rides, back-to-back meets, and the manifestations of physical exhaustion. Countless variables come into play even in runs that only last for a few seconds.
On top of this, behind the scenes, the pole vaulting ace was also getting on flight after flight, working hard to get his poles on every plane he chartered on — a process that he divulged is actually more complicated than it seems.
Of course, EJ did not fail to credit the incredible sponsors and sources of support that he has garnered over the years — he gets goosebumps just at the thought of it. As he says, they are the ones who make all of his efforts possible. “They give me a good fighting chance to compete with all these athletes from first-world countries that I compete with.”
And the collective efforts turned out to be well worth it. As the World No. 3 pole vaulter in the world, EJ was consistently competing against other highly-ranked athletes, pushing him to his limits.
By the time the Southeast Asian Games rolled around, EJ had already gone on a streak of medals. He had the momentum to work with, and surely, he felt it, especially after going toe-to-toe with the best of the best and maintaining his position as third in the world. As one of the top dogs in the sport, it felt as though the SEA Games was just another international competition he had to check off his list.
Conquering the region
As the reigning gold medalist in the men’s pole vault of the SEA Games, EJ Obiena flew to Cambodia with a solid goal in mind.
“I came into it to do one thing, which was to bring back the gold,” he affirmed. And with his previous experiences in the Southeast Asian Games, this was a goal that he undoubtedly knew how to accomplish.
When EJ came into the 2019 SEA Games, he was 24 years old, and as he said himself, “I was not an Olympian yet. I didn’t know what the Olympics were and I felt like the SEA Games was either the biggest or one of the biggest [competitions].
“In 2019, the pressure was kind of big, competing in such a big event in your home country, it’s pretty daunting in a way,” EJ admitted. “Everybody was expecting me to win, so I felt like if I don’t, then that’s a big shame, losing at home.”
The expectations were heavy, but EJ delivered. Not only did he secure the gold medal, but he also set a meet record. And the same headline was written for him in the next edition of the Games. In the 31st SEA Games held in Vietnam, again, he won the gold and broke his own record to set a new one. But as he mentioned before, every medal tells its own story.
“[Vietnam] was tough,” he shared, admitting that he was not in the best state, mentally and physically. No one would have guessed this, especially given his success in the event, but as an athlete, he still had work to do.
This year, the story was different, as always. For the 32nd SEA Games, EJ simply felt like he had a job to do, for his own career and for the country, and he was ready to do it.
Banking on experience
Reflecting on where he was four years ago, the World No. 3 pole vaulter knew that his accumulated experiences since then helped him to grow and view the regional tournament in a new light.
“I felt like if I wanted to be one of the best in the world, I need to be able to dominate the SEA Games. It should be a walk in the park — even though it’s not, it should feel like it.
“This is something that I trained for. I can do this a hundred, thousand times in training, so what’s the difference of doing it in a meet? Experiences definitely made it easier for me to stand up on the runway and believe in myself.”
Standing on the runway before a jump, EJ Obiena is the picture of focus and determination. He stares at the run ahead of him, eyes his pole as he swings it up and down on his righthand side. It looks like a million things could be running through his mind. But in reality, he always keeps it quite simple for himself.
Apart from when he must apply technical adjustments to his jumps, he mostly spends the few seconds before he runs reciting a mantra, telling himself, “You’ve done this multiple times, you deserve to be here. That’s what I keep telling myself and I just need to do what I’ve been doing for so many years and that in itself calms me down and allows me to execute. So in my head, that’s all that happens.”
This is definitely what many people tend to overlook when watching his competitions. What we see lasts only a matter of a few seconds. But as a competitive athlete, EJ Obiena spends hours every day training, pouring immense amounts of effort, so that when he makes his jumps, we don’t see the struggles that take place behind the scenes.
“That’s why it seems so simple. But if you see how training goes, day in and day out, that’s where you see the complications, adjustments, errors, mistakes — all the little things that I try to avoid showing during crucial moments in competitions.”
Through his experience and relying on his training, indeed, his confidence did not lack. Even in the rain in Cambodia, EJ Obiena again went on to win his third medal from the Games and set a new meet record — slippery pole, strong winds, and all.
“I think it was a harder battle for the mind. It really took a lot of experience to be able to hold my bearings and be sure that when I need to go, I can go and actually jump,” he shared.
This was definitely a highlight of his year. But, the calendar is not up yet for EJ, as he still has other major championships coming up.
Making a run for the Olympics
When we sat down with EJ, the SEA Games gold medalist was back in Formia, Italy, in full-on training mode. After all, he still has three more major championships to prepare for this year: the Asian Athletic Championships, the World Athletics Championships, and the Asian Games.
Although he considers these to be his biggest goals for the year, he also has several other non-championship tournaments that he will be competing in to defend his ranking and to qualify for the bigger goal on his horizon: the 2024 Paris Olympics.
EJ Obiena is already considered a Filipino Olympian. In the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, he represented the country in the pole vault tournament but finished 11th. However, this time, he is ready to strive for a better result — a medal.
“[Winning an Olympic medal] is something that I’ve been longing for since Tokyo when I missed that,” he shared. “I know I’m capable of getting one and it feels like it would be a waste for me to not go for it.”
EJ does not shy away from his confidence in his ability and the high expectations he is setting for himself, even on the biggest sporting stage in the world.
“I’ve been in the sport for quite some time to understand the abilities that I have…I would hate to see Paris pass without me getting a medal out of it. It would be pretty hard to swallow.”
This is a huge part of what gets EJ out of bed every morning and into the training center for another eight hours of work. And he does not sugarcoat the process. He admits that training can be like a repetitive cycle that does not change much. And just like any other athlete, sometimes, he goes into it incredibly motivated, and sometimes, it is the opposite.
“When you’re dragging yourself, you need to remind yourself why you’re doing this. Why am I pushing myself this hard? Why am I going to training day in and day out? Why am I killing myself for this?”
To represent one’s country is a dream that many, if not all, athletes hold dearly. EJ Obiena gets the rare opportunity to actually put this dream into action every single time he competes. He has even done it already on the Olympic stage. But, winning an Olympic medal would be an achievement of a different magnitude.
“I think winning another big medal inspires the nation. It inspires the whole next generation of athletes, which few people have the opportunity to even attempt.”
Embodying the flag
EJ Obiena’s influence in the landscape of Philippine sports has grown immensely in the past few years, and it is easy to see. More and more people follow his competitions and watch him perform, and many other athletes look up to him as a successful representative of the country. But he is not in denial about his status — he acknowledges that being successful comes with responsibility.
“The responsibility [of being a role model] is pretty heavy. I never asked for it, I never aimed to be. And it is, I understand, part of being an athlete, to be the best example. But I’m just doing my thing, and I’m still a work in progress,” he openly shares.
But, even though he admits that he does not feel fit for the title of a “role model” just yet, especially as a young athlete just getting started, he does see himself in a different way: as a Filipino proving that Filipinos can achieve anything.
“If I win, [it proves] that we can be one of the best. And I think that ability to inspire, that ability to lift up, that ability to make someone believe that they’re capable of greatness — that is immeasurable.”
Candidly, EJ admitted that a part of what drives him is his pure, innate desire to win and to best his opponents. And although he sees this as somewhat of a “selfish side” of competing, it is undoubtedly where most athletes first get their fire from.
“That’s the selfish side of it,” he said. “But the biggest chunk of it is still being able to represent the country and showing all these people that they can be one of the best.
“Slowly but surely, I’m competing in a lot of different cities and see Philippine flags more and more. And having all these people feel the pride, like, ‘Hey, one of my own is there!‘
“You can’t put a price on that. It’s something you cannot even replicate, and I’m truly honored and proud that I am able to do this.”
It truly is a heavy load to carry — the weight of a nation’s expectations, the weight of their pride, the weight of their joy. But even so, it is a heavy load he is proud to take on so that every time he lifts himself with every jump, he is uplifting an entire nation.
Text ANNIKA CANIZA
Cover Image REUTERS
Cover Layout KARLOTA TUAZON
Special Thanks VMG ASIA