Exclusive! EJ Obiena sets sights on Philippines' first ever Olympic gold: "That's the goal"

Filipino pole vaulter EJ Obiena just broke the national record (again): He talks Tokyo Olympics, Mondo Duplantis, and feeling the love from the Philippines in our exclusive chat.

By Ken Browne

EJ Obiena is smiling when he pops up on the videocall. "Sorry, was just doing my Covid test," he says, "it's negative, so that's good news."

It's the latest good news in a solid stream of good news for EJ whose incredible indoor season has given way to an incredible outdoor season with the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games just weeks away.

Obiena has repeatedly broken national records and catapulted himself to the top of the podium over world champion Sam Kendricks and Olympic gold medallist Thiago Braz.

On June 11 2021 Obiena set a new Filipino record of 5.85m, winning the Jump and Fly competition in Mossingen, Germany, that mark surpassed his own record of 5.81 which he set in September 2019 in Chiari, Italy - a mark that made him the first Filipino to qualify for Tokyo 2020.

The Olympic postponement has given Obiena a year to work harder and go higher and now he's climbing steadily towards the magic 6m mark, putting himself in the reckoning for the podium at the rescheduled in the summer of 2021.

This pole vaulter is the pride of Filipino track and field and is in no doubt about his goal at the Tokyo Games:

"Win the gold, that's it man. That's a really hard goal to achieve, but that's the goal. That's why I'm doing all of this, not to get second and not to get third... to win it." - EJ Obiena

Should Obiena do it he would become the first ever Filipino to win an Olympic gold medal, forever writing his name into the Olympic lore of a country passionate about sport.

Read on for this exclusive interview with the Philippine eagle, from his Olympic aims to the Filipino food he misses (Like fresh coconut water, mangoes and Jollibbee!), how Covid almost made him give up and go home, and his 75-year-old coach Vitaly Petrov who convinced him to keep going.

We also hear about how he looks after his mental health far from home, the friends he's made, his girlfriend who's also an athlete, and the overwhelming support he feels from Filipinos far and wide.

How high can EJ Obiena go?

Obiena's 2021 indoor season numbers soared:

5.62m (5th) at the Karlsruhe World Indoor Tour, 5.80m (1st) at ISTAF Berlin, 5.68m (1st) in Dortmund, 5.60m (5th) at the WA indoor Tour Gold in Lievin, 5.86m (2nd) at the Orlen Cup in Lodz, 5.80m (3rd) at the Copernicus Cup, Torun.

The 25-year-old reset the Philippine indoor record four times in two months at 5.62m, 5.72m, 5.80m, 5.86m.

Now he has his sights set on the Asian record of 5.93, but for EJ it isn't all about the numbers.

"So I have this height goal height that I want to achieve but at the same time not every competition presents the chance for you to make that bar, you know. When it comes to competition, I focus more on the bar that's set right now.

"Going into competition, if you think about the record and someone jumps over that record, you're basically like, oh s..., I need to jump higher than that?

"So I think the best kind of mindset going into competition is just that I need to be the guy who jumps higher than the rest of the field... I focus on winning the meets."

It's working too.

His outdoor season began impressively as he cleared 5.80 to top the podium in June, then he cleared that Olympic standard again at the 2021 FBK Games in the Netherlands, where he stepped up on the podium behind only Mondo, who cleared 6.10m.

Now that 5.85 jump in Germany is another milestone that keeps Obiena dreaming just weeks away from the start of the Olympic Games.

He's learning the little things that work for him too, like the song he listened to before he jumped two PBs in the same week.

"I jumped my PR with this song twice now: 'Praise the Lord' by A$AP Rocky, so it goes like: 'I came, I saw, I came, I saw, I praise the Lord, then break the law, I take what's mine and take some more, it rains it pours, it rains it pours.'"

"I like those lines," Obiena says, "it kind of sinks into me and and the beat is good, you know, it's nice."

EJ Obiena on Mondo Duplantis

If EJ Obiena does want to get the party started this summer in the Philippines with gold in Tokyo then he'll probably have to jump higher than miracle man Mondo Duplantis.

In 2020 the winged Swede set world records of 6.17m and then 6.18m indoors followed by his history-making outdoor best of 6.15m.

This year his 6.01 in Dusseldorf kicked off January 2021, then Duplantis went 6.03 in Rouen on February 6 before clearing 6.10 in Belgrade towards the end of the same month, a world leading mark.

Now he's routinely clearing over 6m, he went 6.10 in the Netherlands recently and is looking in ominous form as the Games approach.

"Mondo is a once in a lifetime kind of generational talent... a unicorn," says EJ, "you know, he is just crazy good and he makes everything kind of look easy."

"He jumps six meters, almost every competition, and that's just unthinkable, only (Sergey) Bubka was able to do that back in the day. But having Mondo in the field definitely makes me push myself a little bit more.

"The way he vaults, the way I vault, it's different, but the way he vaults is not the same way Bubka vaults either and they both soared 6.15m higher."

"He is a good person, he’s humble and authentic and a great role model for the sport. He's a really nice guy, you know, he's just cool he's just chill. There's not a single ounce of like, trying to make you feel tiny. He's just like, 'you're doing good, man you're doing good'. He gets you inspired and it's positive." - EJ Obiena on Mondo Duplantis

"We're good friends, you know, but we're like very competitive as well. I don't know if he feels that way, at least for me, whenever he's there in the field, I want to bring that A game. It's like when Usain is running in a hundred metres, everybody runs a little bit faster than usual."

Obiena inspired by Thiago Braz at Rio 2016

Mondo isn't Obiena's only inspiration, his training partner Thiago Braz has shown him the way with that astonishing win at Rio 2016.

The Brazilian and the Filipino now train together at the elite Olympic training centre in Formia, Italy - when EJ first arrived at 18 he was a shy kid asking for a photograph with one of his heroes, now he's worked to the point where his idol has become his rival.

Braz's Rio story makes EJ believe that on that one day in Tokyo anything is possible.

"When it comes to Olympics, I believe it's the guy who wants it most. How many people get in the final... 12 people? Those 12 people have the same equal chance to get that gold, but it's the guy who wants it most that gets it. That's why Thiago... I think he wanted that Rio gold really bad.

"A lot of people were saying that he was a nobody going into Rio, like, 'who is this guy, who is Thiago Braz?' And little did they know, almost every competition that during that circuit he tried to jump six meters.

"He was jumping (5.) 85, 90, 95, you know, he was at that range. He was just not competing in the Diamond League, he was competing in the lower level competitions, that's why nobody knew who he was.

"You know, Renaud (Lavillenie) was leading, the odds were in his favour, but Thiago just wanted it so bad that he made it work. He made 6.03 on the biggest stage of his life in his home country and an Olympic record. That's just crazy.

"And now I'm really hungry for that and I really want that. I'm just working on everything that could boost my chances of getting gold that day.

"We'll see what happens on the day itself and going in there, now the more jumps that I take, the more technique that I learn, the more consistent I can be, the higher that I can jump, it just helps everything kind of boost my chances on that day."

How EJ Obiena became a pole vaulter

How does a 1.9m (6'2") tall guy become a pole vaulter in basketball-crazy Philippines?

"It wasn't like, OK, now I'm going to be a pole vaulter," laughs EJ, "I was a hurdler first until high school."

"But my dad's a pole vaulter, so we just hang out and sometimes I played around with it. I loved the free fall. If you ask me to jump from a diving board 10 metres high, I'm going to be scared s.... but let's say I make a five metre pole vault, even assisted, and then I'm free falling, I enjoy those moments. That's that moment of enjoyment you create.

"Somehow it makes it less scary and that's the nature of the sport. That moment when my father was kind of flinging me to the pit was fun. As a kid, during the time, I was like, oh, this is nice. I want this. I just want to keep doing it."

"Then during high school, I was like, OK, I want to try it out because there's competition I can actually join."

EJ was a natural, both his mother Jeanette and father Emerson were track and field athletes. Dad represented the Philippines in the Southeast Asian Games, mom ran hurdles for her college.

Jumping high and running fast was in his DNA, and he was always inspired by Olympians.

"I always watched (Sergey) Bubka growing up as a pole vaulter, always like the way he jumped, I always watched Daichi Sawano from Japan, he was like a really short dude but so fast. And of course, the 2004 Olympic champion Tim Mack, always fun watching him because he's kind of an unorthodox kind of thing.

"I liked watching Filipino long jumper Henry Decmil, and then my dad and his friends. I had a lot of inspirations!

"Slowly and surely, it developed for me, being competitive in my age group and then in the country it just kind of evolved, you know, I thought it was something that could get me a good scholarship into college, a free ride, and after that I was like competing with the Philippines as a junior. I thought I could be good at Southeast Asian level."

Then one message changed everything.

Ej Obiena meets Sergey Bubka

One person, one moment, one chance meeting can change your life completely, no-one knows that better than EJ Obiena.

When he got a message saying the Ukranian living legend Sergey Bubka - who held 35 pole vault world records, six world titles and an Olympic gold medal - was in town, EJ went looking for a photo or an autograph and got a whole lot more.

"I wouldn't be here without that moment," says Obiena, looking back.

"I wouldn't be where I am now without him, he opened lots, lots of doors for me. I would never have met my coach, wouldn't have met my training partner, I wouldn't even be in Italy now. I wouldn't have made all the decisions I did without meeting him.

"I was just an 18 year old jumping five metres, nothing sensational about it. And then he said, 'if you jump five metres, we'll send you to Italy, you'll be able to train', and at that moment I saw world class athletes every day and that kind of opened my eyes as a kid coming from South East Asian region where track is not that big.

"I was just like, whoa, this is track. And this is actually pole vaulting, this is track and field. You know, you surround yourself with the people that you you want to be, and I was surrounded by champions and elite athletes, and luckily I was able to become one as well."

EJ Obiena's coach Vitaly Petrov: "A second father"

Suddenly Obiena had an IAAF scholarship and the most successful pole vault coach on the planet in his corner: Vitaly Petrov.

Petrov coached the great Bubka himself, Yelena Isinbayeva, and Thiago Braz to Olympic gold.

"What can I say about Vitaly, he is the best," Braz has said to World Athletics. But EJ says there's also pressure that come with working under a coach who's won it all.

"He has multiple world records, multiple Olympic medals, World medals, like what can you do to make this guy happy?" Obiena says with half a smile.

"It's hard. It's hard. I've jumped 5.80 and he's not happy, I'll jump a PR and he's just like, yeah, it's good, I've won championships and he says, good jump, you know?"

But their relationship has grown, they're tight, a winning team that goes way beyond the track.

"I started looking at him as a coach and now I look at him as like a second father of mine." - Obiena on coach Petrov

"I don't understand why he still gets up in the morning and goes to the track so motivated. What the hell makes this guy wake up seven in the morning and go to training full of energy at 75 years old?" Continues Obiena.

"I'm like twenty five and sometimes I just don't want to go to training. There are days you need to drag yourself out of bed and just go to training.

"And this guy is there for seventy five years. He's been doing that longer than I've been living and he's still so motivated doing it. And that boggles my mind, I'm not going to lie, it boggles my mind."

EJ Obiena's Covid odyssey: He almost gave up

Being far from home is hard, but being far from home in the middle of a global pandemic is on another level.

The world changed fast in 2020 and Obiena found himself at the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak, twice.

"I felt like I was in the middle of it because in January I was in China before everything kind of exploded. So there was this virus that was still like, oh, it's only somewhere in China, you know, it's still not that big of a deal.

"And then suddenly I had some back issues that I needed to fly back to Italy to get some treatment. Three days later the whole of China got locked down and nobody flies out.

"Then I'm like, damn, so this is something serious, I was in Italy for maybe a month trying to rehab my back and suddenly Italy was having this problem as well. I'm like, OK, so what am I going to do if everything gets locked down? I I remember I was talking to my parents, maybe I should just go back to the Philippines.

"The morning of that day they said Lombardy, Milan and Bergamo, those regions are this red zone and everything else is normal, then in the evening suddenly the whole of Italy was on lockdown, people are just not allowed to go out.

"I was like, what just happened? This was just something that's happening in China and suddenly I cannot train, and then the next thing I know, the Olympics was postponed. And I was stuck in Italy.

"It worst time to be stuck in Italy because you can't train, you're basically there without any reason, because I was working for the Olympics. That's the main reason I'm there, I'm far from my family and everyone, I was isolated and It was tough."

"There were times that I'm just wondering, what am I even doing here, it doesn't make any sense to be here anymore. There's no Olympic Games and yeah, but then I had a talk with my coach and he said as an athlete, your job or your your goal should always be to improve yourself every single day.

"He said it doesn't matter if Olympics are going to happen this year, doesn't matter if the Olympics are going to happen next year, it doesn't matter if the Olympics are even to happen, you know, each day that you have, each day that you train, you should try to improve yourself.

"It kind of gave me a different point of view, I was just like, OK, don't focus on the negative stuff right now, I have time to recover my back, now I have more time to prepare for Olympic Games, I'll just work on the things that I could actually work on and that's that kind of kept me busy for the next couple of months of lockdown.

"That's basically how I kind of just got through it. I think if I focused just on the Olympics and not having anything to do, maybe there's no season, I think I would have just got fat. I would just have just played video games all day and just like not do anything because why bother doing something if you don't know what's happening? Or what's going to happen." - Obiena on lockdown

He trained when he could and stayed busy with other things too, "I have an Xbox and a Nintendo switch, I play Mario Kart mostly and I play Forza Horizon, Red Dead Redemption."

EJ also draws, sketches, and as he was going to become an electronic engineer has been messing with automating his house through Google Assistant and Siri, "basically I automated some lights and automated my door, like now I can use it with an app and I can open my door."

He's also fixed his electric skateboard that he rides to the training centre every day, because "I need it to stop when I need it to stop."

The people around him were essential too, coach Vitaly, his nutritionist (Carol Lafferty), physio (Niko VIscusi and Antonio Guglietta), and psychologist (Sheryll Catsuga) who's helped him with the mental side through these tough times, his friends and training partners like Thiago, Andrew Pozzi and Hassan Fofana.

One other person has been a huge support for him too, his girlfriend Caroline Joyeux.

Obiena and Joyeux enjoying the winter in Germany. EJ says having an athlete as a partner means they understand the time demands and when to give each other space. Pic courtesy of EJ Obiena and Caroline Joyeux. 

EJ Obiena building a new life in Italy

Living in Formia, Italy, and travelling to competitions for most of the time since he was 18, Obiena has had to sacrifice much, but he's built a new life and has a solid support group around him.

And German long and triple jumper Joyeux is part of that.

"The good side of it, you know, dating an athlete is that she knows when I need time, I know when she needs time. And it's easier to understand the lifestyle because we're kind of both living it."

Missing the Philippines

EJ may have found a second family in Italy, but he still misses home.

So what does he miss most about the Philippines?

"Right now, food," he laughs, "I miss all the food that is so accessible there, you know, the fresh fruits, like coconut water just across the street, the mangoes.

"My nutritionist will hate me but I miss the fast food chains too, I miss Jollibee sometimes you know, sometimes I just want to eat that.

"So, yeah, the food, the people, of course, just the way they are, the dynamics of the how we kind of train there, and my friends, of course, my family, my dogs, of course. Yeah, I miss those things."

Feeling the love from the Philippines

Though he might be far from Manila, EJ has been overwhelmed by the support from back home.

"When I started jumping the national standard, my name kind of just blew up in the Philippines, like just crazy number of people messaging me. It's quite an experience. I can't really put it into words and how it feels. Just heartwarming.

"The way you're you're appreciated by people you don't even know, then you hear stories about kids that are like, hey, I want to be like him. I never thought I would be in such a position. Filipinos are everywhere too, so in each competition I see the Philippine flag in the stands and I'm like, oh, there's a Filipino right there.

"In Qatar, there's a huge community, after I won the the Asian championships there's this radio station that's built for Filipinos, they invited me into the community, this is such a Filipino thing, but it's so nice, it's something that's so nice and so warm."

He's also had messages from other sports stars and politicians, including a Senator, (No, not Manny Pacquiao).

"One of the Senators actually sent me a message and she was like, yeah, thank you very much for bringing some kind of positivity in this kind of time. We really appreciate it. The community needs it."

He's also very supportive of other young rising Filipino athletes, he messages gymnastics world champ Carlos Yulo who he trained with when he was a kid, "we go way back." He and Carlos will be in Tokyo together.

"I'm actually kind of following Alex Eala, the tennis prodigy," he says, "and I mean Kai Sotto is always in the headlines, so Filipinos love basketball so much that it's impossible to not not see him."

EJ's message to Filipino next gen athletes

Surrounded by people who help keep him happy, healthy, and focused on his goals, Obiena is growing and getting better every day.

So what's his message to kids watching back home?

"My message is, if you really want it, you put your time into it, there's always a trade-off. If you wanna be good at something, you put your time into it and go for it.

"And to be honest, that's the biggest thing I could leave to them, because there's the stigma in the Philippines that being an athlete doesn't give you a good life or it... it's not financially responsible to be an athlete.

"I'd rather be happy doing what I love... And if you love what you do, you get to the point where it works for you. I wouldn't be where I am now if I didn't decide, OK, I want to be an athlete fully and put my time into it."

And finally, what would it be like to stand on that podium in Tokyo?

"If I medal the Olympics I can't even imagine how I'm going to react, how it's going to feel. I just know it's going to be amazing.

"And the same time, you know, it will definitely help track and field in the Philippines. It would maybe expedite everything, just kind of put track and field on the Filipino map.

"I don't really know how big of an impact I'm currently making, but I try to always work on it, and I'm very happy that I'm in this position that I can actually say encourage and motivate kids to do the sport that I love.

"Hopefully, hopefully I can keep doing that and hopefully more Filipino people will be vaulting soon."