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Here he comes, Kjell Isaksson, a 5'8�" 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 17'10�" 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.
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 17'8�"—at the age of 31. "I have to think about my technique, to examine it. Kjell just has it in his head and jumps."