UST pole vaulter Obiena reaches new heights

MANILA, Philippines – An 18-year-old engineering student at the University of Santo Tomas has become the latest toast of Philippine athletics.

Ernest James Obiena leapt to another Philippine record in the pole vault during the weekly relays last Sunday, July 20 at the Philsports Arena.

Obiena, who comes from a family of vaulters, cleared 5.05 meters to erase the 5.01 which he set on July 19 at the same venue. That 5.01 mark wiped away a 22-year-old national mark of Edward Lasquete at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Hardly had the paint dried from his last record as Obiena, an electronics and communication junior, showed what the future holds for him especially in a track and field event where potential is hard to nurture as poles and landing cushions are quite expensive.

“The next event is two weeks from now. I will just try my best,” said Obiena, whose mother Jeanette, was a college hurdler, in a phone interview with Rappler on Monday.

In crossing the five meter mark, Obiena has entered the territory where Filipino vaulters could compete in the Southeast Asian Games. A Thai won the event with a 5.15 meters and the third placer did 5 meters.

Powered by insights from Vitaly Petrov, the Russian coach who steered Sergey Bubka to dominate the event in the 1980s, Obiena’s approach has been reshaped. “He taught me a lot of things. I have to be aggressive on the approach and on planting the pole but have that control,” said Obiena of his two-and-half month training in Milan under a program of the International Amateur Athletic Federation.

His father, Emerson, said EJ would tag along during training. His son would play in one spot in the field with other kids while Emerson and his younger brother Edward, a decathlete who tied the then national mark of 4.55 held by now FEU coach Dario de Rosas.

Emerson, in a separate interview with Rappler, said he would carry his son over the bar at a low height to simulate shooting over the bar and let him fall on the foam. ‘Do you like that?,’ I told him. He said yes and I slowly introduced him to the sport,” said Emerson.

When EJ was growing up, Emerson and his brother put up the Philippine Pole Vault Club, a non-profit group that teaches the basics of the event during summer. That club, which is now 20 years old, helped sustain interest in the sport. Emerson also gives tips to collegiate coaches. One of the extraordinary products of that group is 5-foot-1 Riezel Buenaventura, who won a bronze medal in the 2013 Southeast Asian Games women’s pole vault with a leap of 3.80.

That millieu and guidance from his father slowly nurtured EJ. “He wore out many poles as he was growing up and gaining weight. It’s quite expensive to buy a pole, about 35,000 pesos but we have to get the very good ones since safety is a concern,” said Emerson.

Like a distance runner’s high when he has found his rhythm, the vaulter reaches that zone when he shoots up over the bar and as he releases the pole, he is on air. “That feeling lasts around three seconds but it is exhilarating,” said Emerson.

This lad has restored part of an era where one expected national marks or strong performances in the weekly relays. People used to wait eagerly for the pole vault where they would expect jumpers to try and conquer gravity before falling to the foam. Now, there is someone who will try to raise that bar even higher.



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