EJ Obiena battling isolation, longing for family in Olympic journey
MANILA, Philippines—Ernest John Obiena has already scaled the pantheon of Philippine sporting records and his next step is to get the ultimate achievement in athletics—an Olympic gold medal.
But it hasn’t been an easy journey for Obiena, who has been training in Italy since December. With the COVID-19 pandemic and a canceled trip home, he admits that the isolation had taken a toll on him at one point.
“I miss my family. I’m a person, I’m a human being, I crave connections but I live here alone, and that’s quite hard,” said Obiena in a Zoom interview with Inquirer Thursday. “It’s hard to explain to people how feeling isolated can affect you mentally. The hardest part of the pandemic, I feel so isolated here.”
Obiena, though, knows that his sacrifices are for a greater goal.
“But you do what you need to do. I really want to go back home, but I can’t because I have to train. If I go home then it’s good because I’m with my family but you have a responsibility to the people who believe in me and I have a responsibility to myself because I am going to Tokyo.”
Obiena said that there’s always the temptation of just booking a flight home and taking the easy way out, but he knows that he has a responsibility to the country.
In 2017, he also faced a same kind of battle. He had to through a torn anterior cruciate ligament while also juggling schoolwork as a student of University of Santo Tomas’ Faculty of Engineering.
Obiena said that he didn’t let his injury take his dream away, which started after his dad Emerson, a pole vaulter himself, inspired him to take up the sport.
“My dad started me on this path, I’m not doing it blindly and I’m driven and very motivated in doing the sport but in 2017 I was given an ultimatum—go back to school and do your student-athlete responsibilities like everyone else,” said Obiena.
“I deliberated it because I had a torn ACL and I didn’t know if I can compete at the world-class levels I wanted to be. I decided that I would regret it for the rest of my life if I don’t try.”
Tokyo or retirement
Obiena told himself that if he doesn’t make it to Tokyo then he’d retire.
His Olympic dream, though, remains brighter than ever. Obiena booked the Olympic ticket when he cleared 5.81 meters in a pole vaulting competition in Piazza Chiari, Italy, setting a Philippine record.
Obiena also racked up the gold medal with a 5.76-meter jump in the 2019 Summer Universiade in Naples just two months prior.
“Hit or miss, if I don’t make it to Tokyo then I’ll hang up the pole, God’s will I’m here and I’m jumping quite okay,” said Obiena. “I’m happy I took time to think about my decisions.”
Obiena took it in stride when the Olympics was pushed to 2021 due to COVID-19, choosing to just focus on getting better than regretting the postponement.
“Pole vaulting is a sport that if you’re going to be there, then you have to improve yourself each day in training,” said Obiena. “I’m a pole vaulter, this is what I need to do. I need to be better each day. It’s better than if I just sulk in a corner and go ‘oh the ‘Olympics is postponed.’”
He said that normal life is slowly returning to Italy, a country so badly hit by the virus, but they still have to take precautions like wearing masks in public and not allowing strangers into their training facility.
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