UPDATE: Isles and the 2016 U.S. Olympic Men's Rugby Team placed ninth in Rio, where he scored six tries across three games.
For Carlin Isles, the operative word is "fast."
He runs fast, he talks fast and he’s in a big hurry to achieve his goals.
Known as “the fastest man in rugby” because of his lightning speed, Isles scored a try the first time he got the ball in a club tournament. He made the national team in no time flat. In his debut on the U.S. national rugby sevens team in October 2012 as a substitute, Isles scored a try in his first minute on the pitch. Rugby commentators call him “the speedster.”
And with only four years’ experience, Isles was selected to the 12-man U.S. Olympic Men’s Rugby Sevens Team. The sport returns to the Olympic program in Rio after a 92-year absence.
“When I first started, one of my goals was to become the world’s fastest rugby player and for it to come true is a blessing,” Isles said. “Usain Bolt got his title and I have mine.”
Isles’ only regret is that he won’t face the Jamaican superstar at the Rio Olympic Games. Isles qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field by running 10.15 seconds twice – his fastest time in a non-wind-aided race – in a meet June 19 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, where he lives. And that came on the heels of a seven-week layoff caused by a high ankle sprain, proving Isles even recuperates fast.
The 26-year-old longed to become the only Team USA athlete to compete in two separate sports in Rio.
But U.S. rugby sevens coach Mike Friday asked Isles to skip the Olympic track and field trials to focus on rugby. So Isles got over his disappointment. Fast.
“We talked about basically ‘What are my main focus and goals?’” said Isles. “He just doesn’t want any distractions. I am going for rugby and I want to become the best rugby player that I can. He’s keeping me on the straight and narrow path, not trying to do this and do that.”
Had Isles gone to Eugene, Oregon – taking time away from rugby camp in Chula Vista – running 10.15 would have made him the last qualifier for the semifinals. He would have needed to go 10.01 to make the final, where the top three finishers went under 10 seconds, led by Justin Gatlin at 9.80 seconds.
“My main thing is I’m just glad I ran fast,” said Isles. “Of course, I would have loved to do it. I’m glad I hit the Olympic standard mark and I was faster than four years ago. It is a great accomplishment and something nobody can take away from me.
“I’m honored to have made it.”
In March, Isles got permission from his coach to miss a rugby tournament so he could run the 60-meter at the U.S. Indoor Championships. He placed fifth with a time of 6.67 seconds, surprising some of the full-time sprinters.
“Of course, they don’t want to lose to somebody that plays rugby and doesn’t train like they train,” said Isles. “When they see me, it’s an eye-opener.”
Some of them had seen him before. He was a professional sprinter in 2012 when he qualified for the Olympic Trials with a wind-aided time of 10.13 seconds. But with no prompting from anybody else, Isles decided to skip the trials and basically skip out on the sport.
He had just discovered rugby and wanted to get started right away. Ironically, Isles was trying to become a better sprinter when he got sidetracked. While scrutinizing YouTube videos of Michael Rodgers, with whom he has trained (and who made the 2016 Olympic team in the relay pool), Isles saw teasers for rugby videos on the side.
“I said, ‘OK, I like this, pretty sweet,’” said Isles. “I got to studying it more and I’m like, ‘Oh, man, this might be made for me.’”
At the same time, he thought the Olympic track team might be out of his reach. Isles had left college early at Ashland University to become a track pro because he “knew deep inside that the way I’m supposed to go is a lot different than other people.”
And now he was at a crossroads.
“I was scared,” Isles said. “I was like, ‘Man, top three?’ I had only been running at the professional level for a year. My best bet would have probably been 2016. I was like, ‘What if I don’t make it? Then what? I just felt like, ‘What if I can make it in rugby?’ And then all these goals and dreams and ideas popped into my mind and that’s how I ended up making that switch.”
Two weeks before he would have left for the 2012 track and field trials, Isles went to Aspen, Colorado, where he had found a club team that would take him in.
“I had like $500 to my name at that time; it took $250 to get there,” Isles said. “I thought I would go straight to the USA team. Nope, I had to try out. I had to play club first and learn everything.”
He slept on a couch and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and ravioli for about a month. “I was like, ‘Man, I gotta make this USA team. I can’t keep doing this.’”
Brian Hightower, a former U.S. player, who will be the NBC analyst for rugby in Rio, remembers seeing Isles play in his first tournament in Houston.
Hightower’s friend Andy Katoa was the coach. “He sent Carlin in and he said, ‘Watch this.’ The first time he got the ball, he was standing basically at the center of the field and ran around the entire opposing team – 60 meters and he wasn’t touched by anyone. It wasn’t even close.”
Isles said Katoa “knew how hard and how bad I wanted to make it” and taught him well.
Isles was invited to a U.S. development tour in Canada and quickly earned a contract with the national team.
Hightower said he has watched Isles develop his game and respects the work he put into improving on defense, including making tackles.
“I don’t think anyone in the world in sevens has a doubt about who the fastest man in the game is,” Hightower said. “The question for Carlin is about the other pieces of the game. He’s really grown up as a player because you can’t just be a fast guy and expect to catch the ball and have a ton of space. He has to be able to create space.”
Isles creates space for his teammates, too. “If you want to try to shut me down, it’s going to leave a gap for somebody else,” he said.
The 5-foot-8 wing has also honed a talent for catching opponents flat-footed.
“He used to be kind of a ‘straight-up-burn-you-on-the-corner kind of guy,’” Hightower said. “And now he’s developed a little bit of a step, which means if you’re defending Carlin Isles, it’s not just ‘How fast can I get to the corner, and will he get there before I do?’ It’s ‘Is he going to step off his left or his right?’
“In that case, once Carlin has you flat-footed, he’ll really ‘sit you down.’ It means that you can’t make the decision about which way he’s going to go and he’s going to burn you.”
But some critics didn’t think Isles learned the game fast enough.
“They said they didn’t think I was going to make it, yadda yadda" Isles said. “It made me mad. You don’t understand me as a person, how driven I am, so how can you sit there and criticize me? I wrote all that stuff on my wall in my room and just continue to prove people wrong.
“It was just people who are dream killers, who don’t have dreams, but you ain’t going to kill mine.”
Isles thrives on the fast-paced, physical nature of rugby sevens, which has seven players on a side and seven-minute halves.
“Once people see rugby sevens, they’re going to love it,” said Isles, who considers himself a “tenacious” tackler. “A lot of sports combine into it, like soccer a little bit, wrestling, you’ve even got cheerleading, people picking each other up.”
And of course, there are similarities to football. That’s another sport Isles has dabbled in. He played in high school in Massillon, Ohio, as well as college. In 2013, Isles had just gotten back from a rugby tournament in New Zealand when he was invited to try out for the Detroit Lions.
“I thought, ‘I’ll just go run a fast 40, whatever and just leave,’” said Isles, who has 4.13-second speed in the 40. “I got picked up on the practice squad, and I was supposed to go back the next year, but I stuck with rugby because I felt like that was my path and my purpose in life.”
He subsequently tried out for the Tennessee Titans, but again snubbed football for rugby.
“I told myself after the Olympics maybe I’ll go try the NFL again, because I accomplished my dream to be in the Olympics, so I could do whatever else,” said Isles, who knows he’d have to pack more pounds onto his 167-pound body.
Teammate Madison Hughes believes Isles pursues other sports because “he knows that he wants to push himself. He wants to test himself different ways and I think football and track are different ways of doing that.”
Isles’ determination and fighting spirit have their roots in a difficult early childhood. He remembers having to eat dog food and not celebrating Christmas. He and his twin sister were in foster care and were adopted just before they turned 8, turning their lives around.
“It was tough growing up,” Isles said. “I just faced so many challenges, and overcoming those challenges, spending a lot of time by yourself, and really the things that you endure, you get to see what you’re all about.”
He was always driven and disciplined.
“For me, it was about seeing past what the eye can see and making people believe,” Isles said. “It was almost like I lived a fairytale life.”
And that fairytale could culminate with a medal in Rio. Team USA, known as the Eagles, finished sixth in the past two Sevens World Series standings and have beaten medal favorites Fiji, New Zealand and South Africa.