The world’s fastest rugby sevens player tells Olympic Channel how his path to sporting stardom was far from a straight sprint.

By Andrew Binner | The Olympic Channel | May 31, 2019

To say that Carlin Isles is a fighter, would be a grave understatement.

Today the American is known as the fastest rugby sevens player in the world, whose breath-taking athleticism has led to stardom within the sport.

He has endorsement deals, a significant social media following and travels the world following his dream.

But the reality is that not so long ago, the same rugby star was forced to eat dog food while living rough on the streets.

Isles helped Team USA to qualify for Tokyo 2020, and sat down with Olympic Channel to tell us about his troubled upbringing, an early break in the NFL and his plans to compete as a sprinter and a rugby player at the Olympic Games in Japan.NEWS


Illiterate, fighting and homeless

Growing up in Ohio, rugby was just about the last thing on Isles’ mind. In fact, he was just trying to survive.

“I got taken away from my mother when I was young, and I saw her get locked up in a police car and that was the last time I saw her,” the 29 year old told Olympic Channel.

“My twin and I used to sleep in the car, we were in homeless shelters and we had to eat dog food. I couldn’t read, I couldn’t write when I was younger and I dealt with a lot of issues, especially emotionally.”

“I used to get in fights a lot to protect my twin and I and that was tough for me and I learned a lot about myself and how to be a fighter and how to overcome obstacles and things in life. Life hit me hard I had to fight to go through adversity.”

The ‘weird kid’ with a sporting gift

But Isles didn’t use his upbringing as an excuse to give up, or turn down a negative path.

Instead, he used his hardship as motivation to become a sportsman and an Olympian.

“I was a weird kid, I didn’t go to high school dances, proms, I didn’t go to none of that, all I did was work out,” he continued.

“I’d work out, study film, wake up at 5am and race the school buses up the hill.

“I was just different, I knew I was different and wanted to be somebody in life and I’d do whatever it took to get there.

The vehicle that Isles initially thought would take him there was not rugby, but track and field.

At Jackson High School, Isles’ sporting gift was realised and he broke several state athletics records. He was also an all-county American football player.

Real-life Hollywood story

In a story of triumph against adversity, it seems entirely appropriate that Hollywood provided another source of strength and inspiration to a young Isles.

“I used to watch Rocky a lot. He changed my life in a way, watching Rocky movies,” he said of the Sylvester Stallonefranchise.

“What I loved was that Rocky came from nothing, he was a fighter, he had heart and he overcame adversity, and that stuck with me as a kid.

“He worked his butt off. You’re going to go through tough times in life but you’ve got to keep fighting. If you do that it doesn’t matter what comes at you, you can overcome it.

“Rocky when I was younger was probably one of the best things to happen to me.”

Carlin Isles was inspired by Sylvester Stallone's Rocky movies


Gambling on rugby

Isles’ sporting development continued at Ashland University, where he set a school record of 6.68 seconds in the 60m dash and clocked 10.13 seconds in the 100m, ranking him 36th fastest sprinter in the United States.

On the American football field Isles was equally impressive, and still holds the school record for most kickoff return yardage in a game.

But after initially focusing on qualifying for the London 2012 Olympics as a sprinter, he made the brave decision of risking it all to give rugby a go.

“I was running track professionally and getting ready for the Olympic trials 2012, but it was a year in a half that I’d been running at a level like that.

“I had 500 dollars to my name and I was like if I don’t make it in 2012, then what? I’d have to go another four years and it was just uncertainty and I’m like if you’re not number one in the world, nobody really knows about you.

“I was on YouTube at (professional U.S.A. sprinter) Michael Rodgers’ house, and I started watching rugby and I was like dang, what if I made the Olympics, what if I became America’s fastest rugby player? The world’s fastest rugby player? What if all my dreams came true and I didn’t have to worry about nothing?”

Isles sent former U.S.A Director of Rugby Nigel Melville an email and despite being just two weeks out from the Olympic track and field trials, decided to travel to a rugby club in Aspen, Colorado and learn the sport.

He used half of his 500 dollars on gas money, slept on a couch and lived off peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. His sacrifice soon paid off.

“I was just like working my butt of to learn rugby, how to pass off both hands and I had to make it because if this didn’t work out, I was screwed.

“I was playing rugby for about a month and I got invited on a U.S.A development tour in Canada, and the guys there had played the majority of their life. Out of everyone I was the only one who got a contract, and I moved to San Diego and everything that I wanted came true. All the vision, my whole vision came true.

“What was crazy was I made a call to my (track and field) coach Daryl Wilson and Michael Rogers and I said ‘I’ll see you at the next Olympics’.”

Passing up a multi-million dollar opportunity

Isles’ resolve to become a rugby player was tested in 2013.

The Detroit Lions asked him to come and trial, offering the former homeless child a chance to become a multi-million dollar athlete in the NFL, the nation’s most popular sport.

“I got picked up by the Detroit Lions and I ran fast there, caught punts and stuff like that and they signed me. I finished the season with them and I was supposed to go back the next season. They were waiting and I had to report back. and it was a big decision.