With jitters out of the way, EJ Obiena vows to be better
TOKYO—From his seat far away from the field, Emerson Obiena saw something off with son EJ on Saturday at New Olympic Stadium.
“There was something about his body language,” the older Obiena said.
Minutes after qualifying for the finals of the men’s pole vault competition in the Tokyo Olympics, EJ admitted something was wrong. He just couldn’t put a finger on it.
“I was just feeling very sluggish, which is really strange. It felt really strange inside the field. I didn’t feel like me until the bar moved at 5.75-meter at first attempt,” the 25-year-old Obiena said.
That’s proof that fathers really do know what’s going on with their sons.
Told his father was confident that he would step up when the moment called for it, Obiena laughed and remarked self-deprecatingly: “I didn’t know that [about myself].”
Obiena could already afford to joke around as he walked through the tunnel leading to the exit. Digging deep to summon a resolve and sense of urgency when he needed it the most, the world No. 6 cleared 5.75m on his final try to make the 12-man cut for the finals scheduled on Tuesday.
But he wasn’t as relaxed just moments earlier.
After clearing the first two markers at 5.50m and 5.65m—on his first try on both—Obiena run into his first obstacle. He nicked the bar on his first attempt at 5.75. Then on his second attempt, he never even got to take off.
“Brain freeze,” Obiena said, laughing.
“There was no reason why I felt that way,” he added. “When I woke up this morning, I felt normal, and a bit lazy. I was like, wake up, take a shower, call my girlfriend and then I was like feeling a little bit nervous, you know? I’m trying to [tell myself] I’m not nervous but as the day [went on] I started to feel more nervous.”
The frayed nerves were understandable. And not because Obiena was overwhelmed by the moment.
“I really didn’t feel like I’m already competing in the Olympics,” he said.
But just days before the event got going, pole vaulters were spooked by a COVID-19 positive test on American Sam Kendricks that scratched the world No. 2 off the start list, along with Argentine German Chiaraviglio.
“That COVID scare was like holy [expletive],” Obiena said.
“I felt normal in the warmup … but as I started to jump, it didn’t feel like me.”
And Obiena didn’t even feel like he was on the same page with his coach, Vitaly Petrov.
“I felt slow, but my coach was saying I was fast so there was contradiction,” Obiena said.
On his third try, Obiena went through his routine before launching into a run. He took off and finally cleared 5.75m to tab a spot in the final. The standard qualification height was 5.80m, but with everyone else falling by the wayside, there were enough competitors already for the gold hunt.
For now, it’s back to the drawing boards for Obiena and his team. As Obiena’s dad and Petrov made their way out of the arena, they gestured sighs of relief to the rest of the team.
“He’s going to be killing me right now,” Obiena said. “I made a lot of mistakes.”
He can’t put a finger on those lapses yet. But he has time.
“I need to ask my coach. He would know what went wrong and definitely I need to be better in the final,” the University of Santo Tomas product said.