Pole vault ace EJ Obiena is PSA Athlete of the Year | Inquirer Sports
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Pole vault ace EJ Obiena is PSA Athlete of the Year

By: - Reporter / @junavINQ
/ 05:04 AM January 02, 2024

Philippines' EJ Obiena celebrates after winning the men's pole vault final at the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023. (AP Ph

Philippines’ EJ Obiena celebrates after winning the men’s pole vault final at the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

EJ Obiena stirred up the crowd at the colossal Hangzhou Olympic Sports Park Main Stadium with nearly 80,000 people clapping in a single rhythm.

And with one explosive vault, reset the Asian Games (Asiad) record that turned out to be one of four gold medals that the Philippine contingent won in the quadrennial meet in September.

That was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the year for the 28-year-old from Tondo and a feat that helped him become the sole recipient of the Athlete of the Year honor in the coming San Miguel Corporation-Philippine Sportswriters Association (PSA) Awards Night.

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Gilas Pilipinas ending a 61-year drought by bagging the basketball gold in the Asiad, the Filipinas national team scoring a historic win in its International Federation of Football Associations (Fifa) Women’s World Cup debut, and the pair of Margarita “Meggie” Ochoa and Annie Ramirez achieving a double gold for jiu-jitsu in the Hangzhou Asiad, were all considered for the prestigious award.

Obiena simply stood out and is thrilled to be in an atmosphere such as that, expecting that the cheers from the stands will reverberate even louder in the 2024 Olympics in Paris with something bigger on the line.

“You have to learn to love that pressure. Pressure is a privilege as one tennis star puts it, and it truly is,’’ said Obiena, one of four Filipinos who qualified to the quadrennial Games in the glamorous French capital next year.

With eight months to go in what could be the biggest challenge of his career, the best pole vaulter in the continent has one thing in mind—win that gold medal in the Olympics no less.

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Beating Mondo

Finishing the year as the No. 2 vaulter in the world, Obiena will have to pass through a gauntlet of equally determined rivals in American Christopher Nilsen and Australian Kurtis Marschall, to name a few. But the chief objective has always been to beat world champion and record-holder Mondo Duplantis.

Obiena bested the top-ranked Swede twice in lesser meets and placed second to the defending Olympic gold medalist in the world championships this year, readily installing the Italy-based Filipino as the underdog.

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And that’s fine as far as Obiena is concerned.

“It’s easier to be the underdog. You aren’t expected to do much, but there’s always a fight in you. It’s easier to upset [the favorite] than to be expected [to win],’’ said Obiena, who owns the Asian record of 6 meters and belongs to a rare breed of vaulters in the world who have conquered the height.

Even during the holidays, Obiena was neck-deep in getting himself in shape after just a few months of rest following that Asian Games title, since the 2024 athletics indoor season kicks off late January with the World Athletics Indoor Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, on March 1 to March 3.

With no Southeast Asian Games (SEA), Asian championships and even a world outdoor championship scheduled this year, Obiena will campaign mostly in Europe on the road to the Olympics where his stint back in 2020 in Tokyo didn’t end well.

Obiena has that debacle at the back of his mind and swears it made him sterner.

“I learned to focus on myself a little bit more and I understood what it takes to be on top a little bit better,” he said. “I feel that I’m better mentally and physically since I became older. The test of time has made me stronger.’’

Detesting the possibility of another failed podium attempt in Paris considering the gains he made the past year, Obiena said: “It would be a shame if that happens. Hopefully, by that time, I’ll have a medal around my neck.’’

Handing out the Athlete of the Year to Obiena is certainly a no-brainer, considering the plethora of medals, victories and record-breakers he managed to accomplish, with part of the credit going to his team of Ukrainian coach Vitaly Petrov, physiotherapist Francesco Viscusi, osteopath Antonio Guglietta and mentor James Michael Lafferty.

Story behind medals

He bagged the SEA Games gold for the third straight edition with an effortless jump of 5.65 m despite the slippery conditions in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, one stormy night in May.

Obiena then pulled off another spectacular feat less than a month later, joining the elite 6-m club at the Bergen Jump Challenge in Norway before meeting the Olympic qualifying standard of 5.82 m at the Stockholm Diamond League-Bauhaus Galan in Sweden in July.

He became the first Filipino qualifier for the Paris Summer Games before gymnasts Carlos Yulo and Aleah Finnegan as well as boxer Eumir Marcial also made it in the same month, Obiena moved up a notch higher to second overall in the world rankings, surpassing Olympic silver medalist Nilsen.

“Each of these medals has a big story behind it. Three straight SEA Games, twice in the Asian championships, which was probably the hardest one to defend, the home pressure (against China’s Huang Bokai) in the Asian Games and the world championships as well,’’ said Obiena.

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He understandably finds it difficult to pick out a favorite from them, but the unwritten one in his Paris Olympic exploit could be his greatest story yet.

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