Why Czech Republic win is a big leap for Olympic vaulter EJ Obiena

Manolo Pedralvez

Posted at Sep 09 2020 05:39 PM | Updated as of Sep 18 2020 03:23 AM

What a difference the presence of a coach makes.

This is what Emerson Obiena believes was key behind the success on Wednesday of his son, Ernest John Obiena, who ruled the star-studded men’s pole vault event of the 59th Ostrava Golden Spike meet at Metzky Stadium in the Czech Republic with a season-best jump of 5.74 meters.

Right by the athlete’s side giving pointers was respected Ukrainian coach Vitaly Petrov, former mentor of former world and Olympic champion Sergey Bubka, the elder Obiena noted after watching the performance of the Olympic-bound pole-vaulter on video. 

“I think iyong sa mental side ni EJ nao-overcome niya. Nakagawa siya ng adjustment. Naandoon kasi si coach Vitali, nagkaroon siya ng importanteng feedback. (I think the EJ was able to overcome the mental aspect of his performance and make the right adjustments because coach Vitaly was there. He got important feedback from his coach),” Emerson said.

In a duel that went down to the wire, the country’s first qualifier to the 2021 Tokyo Olympics had a similar 5.74 finish as veteran Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie, the 2012 London Olympics gold medalist, former 3-time European champ and ex-world record holder at 6.16 meters.

Unlike his previous competitions, lanky and lean Obiena showed more grit and mental toughness on the way to securing his second gold in six competitions, nailing the feat on the countback with his first jump at 5.64 meters while the Frenchman did so on the second try.

Both of them failed clearing the bar at 5.84 meters.

Hours after the event, the younger Obiena confirmed what his father noticed, saying: “I was just happy I was able to execute and my coach (Petrov) is here. He was able to give me what I need, and we were clicking and went all the way this time.” 

Back-to-back American world champion and defending titlist Sam Kendricks wound up with the bronze on his first try at 5.64 meters, easing out 2016 Rio Olympics gold medalist Thiago Braz of Brazil, who cleared the height on his third and final attempt. 

Since the competition was a World Athletic Continental Cup gold event, Obiena not only took home a glass trophy but also $3,000 (roughly P145,000), while Lavillenie got $2,250 (P109,488) and Braz $1,500 (P79,000), respectively.

Braz and Obiena are protégés of the Petrov, 82, who heads the World Athletics elite training camp in Formia, Italy where both athletes have been based for five years now. 

“EJ’s feat is the result of a collective effort and the support and acts of voluntary kindness not only from the usual supporters but from people like coach Vitaly Petrov and even Thiago Braz,” said Philippines athletics chief Philip Ella Juico.

With familiar faces around him, the elder Obiena said his son appeared “to be more decisive and performed without hesitation,” pointing out that EJ made 5.34 and 5.54 meters on his first jumps at those respective heights. 

A former national pole vault standout and 2005 Manila Southeast Asian Games silver medalist, Emerson added he has sensed a growing relationship between athlete and coach since Petrov took the younger Obiena under his wing in 2015 as a scholar of Bubka, a former World Athletics vice president.

“EJ and Petrov have become close, and with the coach it’s no longer about the money but l believe it is all about leaving a legacy,” said Emerson, who disclosed that the coach would sometimes give money to EJ when his funds would run short. 

Given the elite field he was up against, Emerson said his son’s latest achievements augurs well and was a huge confidence-builder to his preparations for the Tokyo Olympics.

“Practically this is the Olympic field. Ang kulang na lang duon na si Armand Duplantis (The only one missing here is Armand Duplantis),” he said, referring to the Swedish-American vault star who holds the world record of 6.18 meters.

With Obiena’s outstanding performance in Ostrava, Emerson added, he was hopeful that his son would be invited to the Rome stop of the Diamond League Athletics series on Sept. 17.

Named after Italian 200-meter Olympic champion Pietro Mennea, the Golden Gala Pietro Mennea trackfest headlined by Duplantis will be at the 70,000-capacity Stadio Olimpico, site of the 1960 Rome Olympic Games athletic championships.