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At 20 Isaksson finished 10th in the Mexico City Olympics with 16'10�", 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."