Back to zero: EJ Obiena gears up for pole vault comeback

After recovering from an ACL injury, the Filipino pole vaulter hopes to find his way back to the top

Beatrice Go

4:22:36am September 6, 2018

4:22:36am September 6, 2018

LONG JOURNEY. EJ Obiena has a long way to go before he regains his record-breaking form. Photo by Adrian Portugal/Rappler

LONG JOURNEY. EJ Obiena has a long way to go before he regains his record-breaking form. Photo by Adrian Portugal/Rappler

JAKARTA, Indonesia – In the 2018 Asian Games athletics tournament, Ernest John “EJ” Obiena had a game plan in mind.

But after failing to see action in the last four months of 2017 due to an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injury, the Filipino pole vaulter could not quite execute and failed to land in the top 3.

As the bar was raised to 5.30m, Obiena made his way to his starting postion, held on to his pole and took a deep breath before his approach. His pole met the plant box then with all his might, he took off and swung over the crossbar for an easy clear in one attempt.

When Obiena saw the bar raised 10 meters higher, he knew that it was the start of a gamble.

“My plan was I’ll jump 5.30m, skip 5.40m then jump 5.50m then jump every height after that,”  Obiena told Rappler.

With seven men remaining for the 5.50m attempt, Obiena was planning to surpass his season best of 5.51 set in Germany last June.

"That was my plan, but it didn’t work out,” recalled the 23-year-old.

Obiena knew that he could surpass the towering feat, but he ended up seeing a big X on the results board in all three of his attempts.

“I jumped 5.50 this year, so I know I’m capable, but consistency is repetition, and I didn’t have that this year [since] I was able to train for a really short time,” lamented Obiena, who wound up at 7th place in the event.

From the bottom

Before the 2017 Southeast Asian Games, Obiena was a Philippine athletics sensation and highly touted to be one of the country’s gold medal bets.

However, a tragic accident from training cost him his golden run as he was diagnosed with an ACL a day before his flight for the SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Disappointment and doubt weighed down the Philippine record holder.  But eventually, he realized there were many who came back big from the career-threatening injury.

“My surgery was on September [last year], first week then right away on the third day, we were trying to move the knee so we tried to get the flexibility as fast as we can,” recalled Obiena.

The pole vaulter was only cleared to train last January, but he admitted that it was emotionally tough to start from the bottom again.

“I was like ‘I don’t know if I’ll even make it here (2018 Asian Games) because I was not doing so good and the leg feels weak, and I know I need to catch [up on] a lot of strength work and I don’t know how I’m going to put that in in such a short time.”

Obiena was given a chance to train in Italy again and start his athletics season in European competitions in order to fast track his preparations to qualify in the Asiad. The recovering pole vaulter had to endure a disappointing start to his journey back to the top.

“I went there (Italy) in May, really rough season, started with a zero so I was like ‘Oh I don’t know if I could actually do this,’ so I was just trying to make the most out of the situation during that time,” added Obiena.

It took a few weeks before the University of Santo Tomas student’s efforts paid off. After all the hard work to regain his form, it felt like a miracle when Obiena achieved a 5.51m-mark after all the failed attempts thoughout the year.

“That made me realize that I can still win this so I tried to get back on track,” said Obiena.

Jumping higher

Obiena admitted that his lackluster debut in the Asian Games was disappointing, but it fired him to shoot for the top in the 2019 SEA Games in Clark, Pampanga.

During the Asiad tournament, Obiena watched Thailand's Amsang Patsapong jump to his personal best of 5.50m, surpassing the Filipino as the best pole vaulter in Southeast Asia.

“I need to bring my A-game on that, I mean I have time, it’s November [next year] and I’m going to try to get some revenge in April and see what I got,” said the 23-year-old.

But Obiena understands that to rebuild his strength and confidence, he needs to take it one step at a time.

“I jumped 5.51m, I know that that’s on a best day but I want to jump 5.50m on a regular day.”

Obiena erased the previous record of his father and coach, Emerson Obiena, after he leaped to a height of 5.61m in the Stabhochsprung Classic in Germany last 2017 when he was 21 years old. But now, he has regained the drive to make history again.

“I have a reset after the injury, I was like my [personal best] is now at 5.50,” said Obiena. “Breaking that 5.61m means that I am better than I was before.” – Rappler.com