You know the name EJ Obiena, and you know his accolades for pole vaulting. He has won medals in the Asian Athletics Championships, he’s been to the finals in the Olympic Games, he holds the Asian record, and is currently third in the world for his event. He is one of the Philippines’ most successful and well-known athletes.
But perhaps a little less known is how he has brought all these successes to the Philippines by being far away from home. EJ Obiena trains in the beautiful Italian city of Formia. There, he trains alongside many other successful track and field athletes and is coached by one of the best pole vaulting coaches of all time.
But make no mistake: these opportunities did not just fall onto EJ’s lap. All his medals and records were berthed out of every tough call and every sacrifice that he himself chose to make.
The road to Italy
Like many of us, EJ Obiena has a lot of athletes whom he looks up to. One of them is legendary pole vaulter Sergey Bubka. “Every pole vaulter is a fan of Sergey,” he expressed.
In 2013, EJ was lucky enough to meet his hero, and it was Sergey himself who introduced him to the training program opportunity in Italy. “It just so happened that Sergey opened that up while my dad was already researching about it, and he said, ‘If you make the standard, I’ll be the one to actually push your papers for you and we’ll get it through.’”
Inspired by Sergey’s generous offer, he jumped five meters indoors—the standard he was aiming for. Fast forward to a few months later, and he was on a plane to Italy. There, he began training with Vitaly Petrov, coach of record-breaking athletes like Sergey and Yelena Isinbayeva.
While training in Italy, EJ was actually enrolled in the University of Santo Tomas (UST) on a scholarship. In 2014, he began flying back and forth from the Philippines, spending his breaks training in Italy and coming back home for his studies. Being a student-athlete is hard enough without having to travel between two countries.
“I had made the decision at 17, but I thought I could still mix it…but the sport was asking for way too many things, and I was also in another country. It’s not easy to just study and fulfill my requirements all online,” he explained.
But three years down the road, things changed for EJ.
A big-boy decision
In 2017, EJ Obiena sustained an ACL injury from a bad fall during practice and had to undergo surgery. Logically, it probably would have made sense for EJ to use the time he was taking to recover to focus on his studies. Even EJ was aware of that. “Nobody at the time in Philippine athletics ever came back better after an ACL injury. It hasn’t been done.”
At that point in time, he already had a lot to be proud of in his career. “I got Asian medals already, I was 30th in the world…I had the national record, I had decent accolades. But, I got injured and that was the time it was a question of do I want to continue pole vaulting at the level I want to be, or do I actually want to stay in school and finish my university and do what I had planned? And that’s the time I needed to make a big-boy decision.”
That year, EJ wanted to take a leave of absence from UST to dedicate more time to his training in Italy. Although it was a clear decision to him, his parents were not as taken with the idea.
“My dad, although he was a pole vaulter himself, he made a comment: ‘Are you sure? Are you out of your mind? You just broke your knee, you don’t know if you’re ever going to be back to where you were, and now you want to take a leave, now you want to take the risk?’”
EJ recalled having many tough conversations with his parents about his future. Eventually, they came to an agreement. “Until 2020, the moment I don’t qualify, I’ll go back to school, I’ll study. I can tell myself I gave it the best shot that I have and I can sleep at night knowing I did whatever I can do.”
On track to 2020
With the goal in mind, EJ Obiena entered his journey to 2020. He took leaves from school and began spending more time abroad, training in Italy for up to six months a year. And if he was hoping for a sign that he made the right call, it wouldn’t come easy.
“2018 was definitely not the year that showed that my decision was right. I finished 5th or 6th in the Asian Games, jumped 5.50 meters…Then 2019 in indoors, I was struggling.”
Unable to see the rewards of his sacrifice in those first two years after his injury, the doubt began to creep into his mind. But as he persevered through tough seasons, he eventually saw a glimmer of hope.
“Then outdoor season came and the first meet was the Asian Championship, and I remember just going in there totally unseeded, they didn’t know who I was anymore,” he recalled. “And then God-willing, I jumped a new championship record, new personal best, new national record, qualification for the World Championships.”
From that point on, things for the Filipino athlete began clicking. Two months after his Asian Championship record, he jumped yet another national record in the World University Games. Another two months later, he qualified for his first Olympic Games.
“That was the only time that my decision back in 2017 actually made sense.”
And in EJ’s own words, “The rest is history.”
When in Formia
Now as EJ Obiena targets his next big goal, the 2024 Olympics in Paris, he continues to train in Formia, Italy.
“Formia is located on the downside of Italy. The training center is literally a few hundred meters from the sea, and then maybe a kilometer at the end of it is a mountain. It truly is a paradise.”
With the training center located in such a picturesque spot, it’s no wonder EJ has broken record after record. Well, that and his undeniable dedication, of course.
But even living abroad in a beautiful European country, EJ admits that on his rest days, he mostly prefers to rest and recover at home. “Those are gonna be the days I don’t need to wake up at 7:30 in the morning. I would just skip the alarm, sleep whenever I can…If I wake up at lunch, then I wake up at lunch.”
Occasionally, though, he does spend his rest days out of his apartment. He admits he doesn’t like crowded places, so when the pandemic hit, that was when he was able to go around the country more. He’s visited places like Padova and the Vatican, and he’s been to Rome several times. This is where he gets his favorite Italian food.
“My favorite Italian food would be carbonara. And the best restaurant to get it is in Rome, in the middle of it, in a place called Osteria da Fortunata.”
EJ swears by it, telling us his friend from Great Britain travels two hours by train just to have lunch there. Just by the looks of it, it seems worth the commute.
It certainly must be difficult to be an athlete and surrounded by delicious Italian dishes, especially pizza. But we were surprised to find out that EJ hasn’t eaten pizza since 2015. As crazy as it sounds, it’s true. “I hate it,” EJ admits, “but it’s the price to pay, man.”
Yet even constantly surrounded by Italian food, he told us: “I miss Kare-Kare.”
I mean, who wouldn’t?
Taking the day off
Italy is a beautiful country with many sights to visit. But even though EJ has seen some of it, he still prefers to spend his rest days closer to home. “Most of the time, I really try to go to the track, visit my friends,” he shared. “There are tennis players playing here so I watch them play.”
EJ Obiena is passionate about tennis himself, actually. He started playing leisurely just in 2019, but already he speaks of it with experience. “In tennis, every ball counts, and every time you hit the ball, you need to hit it with precision, with direction…In pole vault, it is the same, but we can’t hit 100 balls. So mentally, to train that skill, to be able to deliver whenever you want to, it’s very difficult to do that in pole vault.”
Even while playing a sport just as a hobby, EJ still finds a way to utilize his days off trying to get better and better at his own sport.
Even in a beautiful city, with great food and great views, the price to pay for success is hefty. Especially when you’re miles away from home.
Far from home
Funnily enough, when asked what he missed most about home, his first response was: “Bubble tea. In Manila, it’s on every corner. The nearest bubble tea here is two hours away and I’m not going to do that travel to get one.”
Of course, EJ does get homesick for his family and friends back home too. “Of course in a better place, it’s like having your pet on your lap, just relaxing with your family, having a good time, eating at the table facing your family, and having a good family late-night talk. These kinds of things of course I miss.”
But again, he emphasizes that even his homesickness is part of the price he has to pay for greatness.
But even far from the Philippines, he has made a home for himself with his training team. He has his coach, physiotherapist, osteopath, and sports psychologist who are all supporting him.
“I’m surrounded by people who truly care for me,” EJ expressed. “They truly are like my second family. I grew up with them and I feel like I can trust them with my life. You can’t buy that with money.”
Indeed, EJ has worked hard to get to where he is today and his sport has given back to him in so many ways. One day, he hopes he can return the favor to other future athletes.
Paving the way
EJ Obiena started pole vaulting at a young age because his dad was a pole vaulter himself too, and EJ credits this as part of the reason he was lucky to discover the sport. On the other hand, the same isn’t true for most other kids. “It’s a sport that’s not as accessible as basketball,” he admits.
“The first hindrance is equipment. Not everybody has the pit, not everybody has the pole, and not everybody has the knowledge to teach it.” But even so, it isn’t impossible, and EJ and his family are looking into ways they can bring the track to the kids instead of vice versa.
“That’s one thing I would want to change in my stint as a national athlete. Hopefully, I can get it more accessible. We’re planning a bunch of things and hopefully get a portable track, like a circus traveling around the Philippines so just get the kids involved and try to kickstart that thing and make it accessible to them.”
Truthfully, pole vaulting is a very niche sport and isn’t as easy to do simply on a trial basis. But, his dad has actually kickstarted his own steps in small ways. He has a Philippine pole vault club, open to anyone who wants to try the sport out, even just for fun. “Anyone on social media can just send a message,” EJ shared.
Based on his experiences, track and field as a sport has been a road to so many opportunities. If he had never made that big-boy decision, his life would have turned out entirely differently. But, with every step he took and with every decision, he has proven that, in his own words, “Definitely, we can be world-class.”