By Mark Allan Cervantes
(July 31, 2021) – From logistical struggles in transporting his equipment to a late COVID-19 scare, it hasn’t been the smoothest of rides for Filipino pole vault bet EJ Obiena in his first taste of action in the Tokyo Olympics.
In an interview with One Sports’ The Game a few weeks before the competition, the 21-year-old Obiena admitted that he is not yet at peak form and has a lot of catching up to do on the mental side of the game.
Then prior to today’s qualifying event, two pole vaulters, including medal favorite Sam Kendricks of the United States tested positive for COVID-19 in the Olympic Village, raising concerns for Obiena as there were instances when he was at close proximity to him.
“It was a bit scary because we were jumping at the same mat in training. But I did the precaution, I had my sanitizer, I had my mask,” said Obiena on Saturday. “I just thought that if it was God’s plan to let me play, I’ll play. If not, I need to find a way to live with that.”
Fortunately, tests for him and his team turned out negative and Obiena was allowed to compete. The situation, however, may have taken its toll on his mindset.
“Physically, I feel good. Today, not so much. It took me a couple of jumps to start feeling like myself again. I think it was more mental,” said Obiena.
The Filipino pole vault phenom actually started the competition via impressive fashion, clearing 5.50 meters and 5.65 meters, with room to spare. But despite his strong start, the pride of Tondo, Manila knew that something was wrong.
“I made it (the first two heights), but I didn’t feel like me. I would say I’m scruffy today, I just take whatever I could take,” said Obiena.
His struggles became more evident in the crucial height of 5.75 meters. He failed to clear the bar on his first two tries. In a lot of his attempts, he looked a bit uncomfortable and hesitant, a far cry from the confident young athlete who has dominated Asia, with gold medal finishes in the 2019 Asian Athletics Championships and the 2019 Southeast Asian Games.
In a format where three consecutive penalties mean automatic elimination, Obiena needed to come up clutch to keep his hopes for a podium finish alive.
“Just make the bar. I didn’t know if I would be out or in if I don’t make it, but I knew I had it in me,” said Obiena as he described his thoughts before his third and final attempt at 5.75 meters.
Desperation brought out something extra from Obiena, as he let out a primal scream after successfully clearing the bar, and in the process, earned a spot in the finals. Unforeseen hurdles may have injected a bit of drama into Obiena’s road to an Olympic medal, but for him, what’s important was he got the job done and will have another chance to be better in the next round.
“Clearing it on the last attempt is not the way I wanted to do it, but I’ll take it. Now that we’re going to the finals, I just need to stay ready, regroup and talk to my coaches,” said the obviously relieved Obiena, who’s participating in his very first Olympics.
Obiena, who was the first Filipino to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, will surely need a much better showing in the medal round if he hopes to beat powerhouses like world record-holder Armand Duplantis of Sweden and the last two Olympic champions Thiago Braz of Brazil and Renauld Lavillenie of France.
“The guys that should’ve made it are there. It’s as tough as it can be,” admitted Obiena.
But now that he already got a taste of what the competition is like in the Olympics, Obiena is now aware of what it takes to compete against the best of the best, and ultimately, what it takes to win.
“I have the experience now. I need to learn from this,” said Obiena. “I’m just thankful to be here and be able to compete in the finals. This is my dream.” (PM)