Here he comes, Kjell Isaksson, a 5'8½" Swede with a 16-foot pole—and he can go higher on that thing than any other person in the world can go on anything a person can carry. All right, a backpack jet engine can take you farther up, but when it comes to man's own bodily power and his basic sticks-and-stones extensions, the world's top performer in the stavhopp stands, for a split second, head and shoulders and trunk and legs and several feet of fiberglass tubing over everybody else.
Stavhopp is Swedish for pole vault. Isaksson is a 24-year-old former gymnast who last Saturday in the Meet of Champions in Los Angeles vaulted cleanly over a bar that had been placed about a foot higher than Nate Thurmond sitting on the shoulders of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar standing on Wilt Chamberlain's head.
In abstract terms that is 18'2"—a new world record, one inch higher than the old one set by Isaksson at the Texas Relays the week before. This same Isaksson also holds the indoor record of 17'10½" set on Feb. 26 in Madison Square Garden. Who is he, as short as he is, that he should be so ascendant?
Well, here we are at UCLA on a balmy mid-April day with a seven-mph tail-wind blowing, and here he comes. When he is not sprinting down a runway with that pole in front of him, he is a busy, boyish, generally weedy-looking individual of 150 pounds, with slightly pushed-in front teeth, a pleasant but fleeting smile, floppy collar-length blond hair, unnaturally wide shoulders and an air of absorption and confidence, as though he knows something that makes him not really so weedy. Now, as he smoothly gathers speed in his unusually long approach, you begin to get an inkling of what he knows, to feel that if he were to hit a time-warp and be transported into a jousting contest he would, without breaking stride, knock a large man in armor off an oncoming horse.
April 24, 1972
But let us say that this is one of those approaches when Isaksson's countryman, fellow hopp-er and roommate Hans Lagerqvist has observed that Kjell's foot has not landed at a certain point, and has shouted "stopp!" In Swedish, "stopp" means nearly the same as "stop." So Isaksson has pulled up short, and we have a moment in which to examine his case.
Until the age of 16, Isaksson lived in Solleftea, a town of 10,000 people some 300 miles north of Stockholm. He says his father "once won a cycling competition, even though he was the only one using an ordinary bike," and that his mother was an accomplished rower and gymnast. When he was 10, Kjell took up gymnastics at his mother's urging, and he became the best in his age group in the province.
"Kjell and his mother are very close," says Swedish journalist Lennart Cedrup. "It is like the relationship between Ingemar Johansson and his mother." After his parents were divorced, Kjell moved with his mother to Sundbyberg, a Stockholm suburb, where, as it happened, there were no gymnastics clubs.
At 16, therefore, he took up pole vaulting and the high jump. At 17 he was the Swedish schoolboy champion in the pole vault, and the next year he won the 18-and-under title. He continued to compete in the high jump until a couple of years ago, when after clearing 6'6" he concluded that he was too short to be world class. Since the taller you are the higher up on the pole you can grip and the less you have to push yourself up, his build is not ideal for vaulting, either, but his compactness, his "short levers," help give him "really good quickness on the pole"—to borrow phrases used by his friend, Dick Railsback, the 17-foot-plus California vaulter, in describing Isaksson's form.
"I don't think at all when I jump," Kjell explained the day before the UCLA meet, in the apartment in the Hawthorne section of Los Angeles where he and Lagerqvist are residing while working out in the Southern California warmth (it is too cold to train outdoors in Sweden until late May). "I can feel how to do things. This comes from gymnastics—you can control your body, you know where you are the whole time."
"It is different for me," says Lagerqvist, who is just coming into his own—he has cleared 17'8½"—at the age of 31. "I have to think about my technique, to examine it. Kjell just has it in his head and jumps."
At 20 Isaksson finished 10th in the Mexico City Olympics with 16'10¾", and he says he now feels capable of 18'4". He is his own coach and keeps his own counsel.
"He is pretty much into himself while he is competing," says Railsback. While Isaksson seldom shows excitement after a big jump, he is popular with other vaulters and with the public. In Sweden he is not a national hero because track and field is not big there, but he has had enough financial support from sports-minded Swedish groups to enable him to train the way he wants to. When he returns to Sweden in a few weeks he will use his degree in physical training for the first time, working in a kids' after-school athletic program. He has now ironed out his vaulting technique thoroughly enough so that, except to test a new pole, he never jumps in practice—only runs and lifts weights. He is far more consistent than the only other 18-foot vaulter, Chris Papanicolaou of Greece, who bettered that height by a quarter-inch when he set the listed world record in Athens on Oct. 24, 1970.
Still, the Isaksson phenomenon is not entirely pure and simple. There is the matter of the pronunciation of his name, which is not his problem but is confusing to non-Swedes. First of all: Kjell. "Some people," says Lagerqvist, "pronounce it like the brand of gas."
So how should it be pronounced?
"Shale," says Lagerqvist.
As for the surname, Americans tend to pronounce it "Izuckson," with the emphasis on the "I." Isaksson says he would prefer "E-sock-sone"—rhyming with "San Antone," and with roughly the same distribution of stress.
Then there is the question of his pole, of anyone's pole. To be sure, vaulting has been streamlined a great deal since the mid-19th century, when England's Ulverston Cricket Club "climbers" popularized going over the bar in a sitting position, employing a hand-over-hand shift and a climbing and swinging motion. The wooden pole they used had an iron tripod at its lower end.
But even though today's pole is a simple fiber-glass tube, it is by no means a constant factor. You don't just go out and pick up any old stav to hopp on. One thing Isaksson likes about living in Los Angeles is that he and Lagerqvist can drive down to Costa Mesa, where the Browning Manufacturing Co., part of the same concern that makes rifles, turns out Sky-Poles. Pacer American's Cata-Pole has in recent years become more popular among top vaulters, but Isaksson prefers the Sky-Pole because it comes in a lighter model—five pounds—whereas the lightest Cata-Pole with the same stiffness is closer to six. With a lighter pole he can run faster.
Lightness is only one consideration. Stiffness is another, more complex, one. "The stronger you are and the higher you jump, the stiffer pole you use," Isaksson says. Over the past year he has advanced so quickly that he has changed poles seven or eight times, not because the poles have gone soft but because he has transcended them. Fortunately, there are two ways in which poles do not complicate a person's life. Disposing of poles is no problem—they are passed on to other vaulters—and poles are not susceptible to theft.
"I have three poles now," explains Isaksson. "You can just leave them lying outside by the wall of the apartment house. People won't steal a pole because they don't know what it is."
Picking out your next pole does require calculation. At the factory, Isaksson flexes poles and has them tested in a special machine which registers their precise degree of stiffness.
"But the new type pole I am using now has a stronger kind of fiber glass, so it shows softer on the machine," says Isaksson.
"It can't be that way," objects Lagerqvist.
"It is stronger fiber glass," says Isaksson.
"But the machine shows the power it takes to bend is just the same."
"Maybe I am using a softer pole then."
"Why?" Lagerqvist asks.
"I don't know. It must be the new pole shows softer."
"No, it can't be that way. Maybe you are slower now."
"No, I can't be slower than last year."
"Something is not the same. You may have better technique."
"If I had better technique, I would use a stiffer pole."
Somewhat later it occurs to Isaksson why he is, indeed, using a softer pole this spring. It is the American boxes. Another variable. The sloping, vinyl-coated box beneath the bar, into which the pole is planted for the vault, is supposed to be eight inches deep, but in this country, Isaksson maintains, the measurement is made along the slope. At an indoor meet in San Diego last February the box was two inches shallower than a European or a Japanese one, according to Isaksson, and he failed to clear 16'6". At UCLA, where he and Lagerqvist train, he has accommodated himself to the box, which he says is only ¾" off, but in order to do so he has had to get a series of softer poles.
Other things come along to hinder, if not to bring down for long, the world's highest vaulter. In 1969, while doing step-ups, going up and down only a few inches but with 100 kilos on his shoulders, he lost his balance and fell. The weight compressed certain of his vertebrae. That injury kept him idle for two months, and he thinks that all the other injuries he has had since then may derive from it. Last year he suffered five hamstrings. Before the UCLA meet he pulled something in his back.
Everybody has problems. Asked what Isaksson is like personally, Cedrup, the journalist, says, "He knows what he wants. He likes Japanese girls." Cedrup adds, "Kjell has had a harmonious life lately. He hasn't been unlucky in love but four or five times this year." Currently Isaksson wears on a chain around his neck a small gold disk bearing a Japanese character. The medallion was a present from a girl he met at a meet last month in Tokyo. "He was a little upset when that girl friend in Japan got married," says Lagerqvist.
Another thing: sometimes, Isaksson admits, he has bad dreams about the pole vault. "It is feeling difficult to jump. I can't leave the ground. I feel that the pole is a rope, and I can't plant it, because"—he makes wobbly motions with his hands—"it is a rope. You call it a...nightmare? The night before a big meet sometimes I have a nightmare. Especially about the pole is a rope. Because you can't use the pole. Never good dreams. Just bad. You can't leave the ground." He shakes his head. "And I dreamed once it was the Olympics and I couldn't be there on time."
These are some of the things that Isaksson is not thinking about, presumably, as he prepares for his last run at 18'2" in the Meet of Champions. The box is deep enough, there is nothing to be done about the girl, the pole is not a rope because it is the same one he set the record with the week before, and the blue balloon tied to the javelin stuck into the ground beside the runway shows that he has the wind at his back, which he likes because it helps him go faster.
The bar is way up there. It takes four AAU officials in light gray pants, dark gray blazers and white straw hats; one official in red pants, a black blazer and red hat; and four boys in light blue T shirts to get the bar aloft and to measure its height. "No way I'm going up there," says one of the Gray Blazers, as another one mounts the ladder and stands on the 14th step, four people holding the ladder for him, the wind whipping his tape measure.
Isaksson has missed twice at 18'2". "He's got great coordination and really good timing," says Railsback, as Isaksson gets ready to go again. "And the utmost confidence in himself. He has pretty good speed, and he converts it well. He has a very efficient plant. He gets into it and through it well. In a good vault, you should feel no strain. That's one of the bad things about vaulting—you remember the bad ones, because it's a struggle all the way up. The good ones you never feel.
"The first two tries he was a little too quick," Railsback observes. "He was going at it. Instead of...that's a good jump." That is, in fact, in the subsequent words of the P.A. announcer, "The greatest pole vault of all time." He has made it. While Railsback was analyzing his style, Isaksson had soared.
When he is asked whether he was excited, Isaksson says, "A little," because he wasn't sure he would make it, on account of the pull in his back. Three different officials go up the quivering ladder to verify the measurement. "I wouldn't go up there if you took my picture," says a fourth. Isaksson signs autographs and answers reporters' questions.
"What is the most important thing in pole vaulting?"
"What is your time in the 100 with the pole?"
"I have never done it," he answers.
"Is it true what Railsback said about not feeling the good ones?"
"The last three or four steps, I don't know anything. When I make a good jump, I don't know what I am doing."