by Ernest Obiena

I found out from a text message. I was 17 or 18 at the time, a young pole vaulter without any great results to my name, but that text from my national federation would change the course of my career.

What did it say? That Sergey Bubka was in town.

Athletics may not be a big sport in the Philippines, but my father had been a pole vaulter, my mother a hurdler, so I knew all about the Ukrainian: 35 world records, six world titles and an Olympic gold medal. A living legend.

I asked if I could meet him, hoping to get a photo and to have my shirt signed. In the end I got a whole lot more.

I went with my family and Bubka was so welcoming, inviting me to talk about pole vaulting. At the time my best was 4.90m, but he told me if I could jump five metres I’d qualify for an IAAF scholarship to train at the World Pole Vault Centre in Formia, Italy.

I achieved that and set off later that year with my father, Emerson, who had coached me since I was a child. I had never been outside Asia and when I arrived in Formia, the facilities blew my mind. I saw world-class athletes every day, a who’s who of track and field, and I was completely star struck.

We learned every day from Vitaly Petrov, who coached champions like Yelena Isinbayeva, Thiago Braz da Silva and Giuseppe Gibilisco – in addition to Bubka.

Ernest Obiena ()

We took those lessons back home and I began to improve, clearing 5.21m in 2014, but few would have seen me then as a successful senior.

I didn’t even make the qualifying standard for the 2014 world juniors in Eugene, Oregon and when I think back on my teenage career, I kind of sucked.

I started out as a hurdler. Because both of my parents were athletes, I spent most of my childhood roaming the track. My Dad tells me I first tried the pole vault when I was eight. There was no pole small enough to use so I tried to vault with the metal pole they use to put the bar back up.

In high school, I didn’t even make the regional meet for the hurdles and before I went to university, I decided to switch to the pole vault. There wasn’t a lot of competition in that event in the Philippines so I thought it could get me a scholarship to a good school, which it did.

Over the years that followed I went back and forth to Italy between my studies at the University of Santo Thomas in Manila. Since 2016, Vitaly has been fully in charge of my coaching and in 2019 I spent almost the full year training under his guidance in Italy.

There have been many setbacks along the way. In 2016 I was hoping to clear 5.70m to make the Olympics in Rio but my poles got broken in a trip in March and it took a long time to find replacements. Half the outdoor season was wasted by the time I did.

In 2017 I cleared 5.61m and I should have made the World Championships in London, but during a competition in the Philippines I landed awkwardly in the pit, twisting my knee and tearing two ligaments. That took six months to get over.

Last year was when things finally clicked. I won the Asian title with a national record of 5.71m, won the World University Games with 5.76m, then cleared 5.81m just before the World Championships.

The World Universities was amazing, like an out-of-body experience. I was seeded third or fourth going in and I had a rough warm-up, but when the event started something clicked: “I’m not going to lose today.”

I took some risks. I passed after one failure at 5.61m, did the same after one failure at 5.71m, but it paid off when I got over 5.76m at my second – and final – attempt.

Ernest Obiena ()

Two months later, it was off to Doha for my first World Championships. Going out in qualifying wasn’t what I wanted, but I gave it everything and the experience only made me want to train harder.

As a teenager, I never thought I had the talent to make a World Championships but it’s all about developing on your own time. If you’re good as a junior, it’s never certain that you’ll be good at senior level and the opposite is also true. If you love the sport you’re going to stay, one way or another. If you’re dedicated, you’re going to improve.

Vitaly reminds me of that a lot these days.

When I first heard about the coronavirus, I was in Beijing, China sometime in January. At the time I was preparing for the Asian Indoor Championships, but a small problem with my back forced me to fly back to Italy to get treatment.

It was early March there before things started to get crazy. One night I was hanging with friends in the training centre and it was announced that the whole of Italy was going into lockdown.

No one was sure how to react, but we carried on as well as we could. We tried to stay fit so when everything went back to normal, we weren't going back to zero. The lockdown is slowly being lifted here right now, but it’s hard to know what direction it will go next.

On Monday the track was re-opened but on Tuesday we received a call that it would be closed again for a few days. They now say it’ll be open again later this week and if it is, we’ll finally get back jumping.

I worry most about the situation back home. My family is okay – they’re staying home and doing fine – but the Philippines is a developing country and we don’t have the resources to handle the virus if the cases increase.

But no matter where you are in the world we all feel the effects of this – big and small. When I first heard that the Olympics were postponed, it was a bit of a bummer. I felt a little lost: what I am going to do now?

But as Vitaly said: “It doesn’t change anything. You’re an athlete, your goal is to get better each day in training so if the Olympics are this year or next year or in four years, it doesn’t matter.”

I hope we’ll have some competitions this summer but if not, I still look at this with a different perspective. There’s always an opportunity, even in a crisis.

It’s more time to prepare, a chance for me to be better when the Olympics come in 2021.