By Scott McDonald | April 20, 2017, 1:47 p.m. (ET)
Ryan Carlyle poses for a portrait at the U.S. Olympic Training Center on July 21, 2016 in Chula Vista, Calif.

 

A college trip to Australia piqued Ryan Carlyle’s interest in rugby. Now the 2016 Olympian is one of the top women’s rugby sevens players in the world.

This week Carlyle and her American teammates travel to Japan to play the Kitakyushu Sevens Series. The United States will play Spain, England and Canada on Saturday — Friday in United States time — to kick things off. (Carlyle was scheduled to play but was injured just days before and replaced by Lilly Durbin.)

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Sports and nutrition have long been a part of Carlyle’s life. Growing up in New York, she excelled in soccer, softball, basketball and track, and upon enrolling at the University of South Carolina in 2007 she even tried walking onto the softball team.

Ultimately, though, she decided to pursue other interests.

“I enjoyed being there and learning what I was outside of sports,” Carlyle said. “I studied, joined a sorority and generally stayed active.”

Rugby wasn’t on her radar.

That changed when Carlyle and a handful of other students represented the university at a sports conference in Brisbane, Australia. While touring sports venues there, she took in a Brisbane Broncos game in the country’s National Rugby League.

“I’d never seen rugby before, and I thought you must be insane to put yourself through this kind of physical competition,” Carlyle said. “At the same time, I knew I had to try this.”

Upon returning home, Carlyle found a flier for a college rugby team. It was a natural fit. Carlyle — who in addition to the other four sports, also dabbled in bodybuilding and figure competitions after high school — played two years with the club team, and she was named an All-American both years.

That got her noticed by USA Rugby, and she began moving up the ranks, from the U.S. Under-23 team to an invitation to national team tryouts to a spot on the top team.

“I had a willingness to learn, and I had coachability and athleticism,” said Carlyle, now 27 and living in the San Diego area while training at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center. “While I was still learning the rules and strategy in rugby, I had an athletic base to make myself more coachable.”

That willingness to learn was on display in college — even when not in the classroom. On nights when she had nothing else to do, Carlyle would head to the gym. She also began paying closer attention to what she was eating.

“I learned more about human anatomy and nutrition than I did in any classroom,” said Carlyle.

A noted creature of habit when it comes to food, she’s eaten the same breakfast every day since making the national team — two hard-boiled eggs, oatmeal, a banana and coffee.

Carlyle’s knack for learning has been long instilled outside rugby, too. After graduating from South Carolina, she earned her international business degree from DeVry University in 2014 and plans to further her career by studying science classes, also at DeVry.

In 2009, around the time Carlyle was getting started in rugby, the International Olympic Committee voted to add rugby sevens to the 2016 Games in Rio.

“Once it was announced as an Olympic sport, every rugby player said, ‘I have to go for this,’” she said. “We knew the competition ahead of us was fierce, and it got so much stronger and more competitive as the player pool dwindled down. You do whatever you can to stay there.”

Even as the pool was narrowed down to 20 players, Carlyle said no one had any idea whether or not they had a chance to make the final cut of 12 players for Rio. She finally found out through an email.

“I didn’t even read the entire email to know,” she said. “I saw the congratulations, like when you see it on a college acceptance letter, and I knew. There was this huge moment of relief.”

Carlyle said didn’t know what to do first: cry, jump for joy or call her mom. To celebrate, she and her roommate bucked Carlyle’s gluten-free and dairy-free diet by eating mint chip and vanilla ice cream in a waffle cone with rainbow sprinkles.

But as quickly as the treat went down, the realization dissipated.

“You realize only that part is over, and now there’s more work to be done,” she said.

Team USA finished fifth in Rio, and now her journey continues.

Scott McDonald has 18 years experience in sports reporting. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.