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
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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.
“I was like man, am I going to give up everything the NFL offers for rugby? I just had to think that God put me here for a reason on Earth, what am I chasing? What am I after? I didn’t want to chase the wrong things because a lot of people were saying ‘the money, the money, the money’.
“But I’ve been blessed and I was like you know what? My purpose was people, I want to inspire people so I’m going to stick with it and I’m glad I did.
“A lot of people would have picked the NFL, but I knew it was a trap, because it’s basically testing your character and I would have done it for the wrong reasons and my heart wasn’t in the NFL as much as it was before, and I had to do what was right, which was rugby.”
Fulfilling an Olympic dream
Isles’ dedication to rugby was rewarded as clips of his breath-taking athleticism in the World Rugby Sevens Series quickly went viral.
But the ultimate prize came in 2016 when Isles was selected to represent the United States at the Rio Olympics, thereby fulfilling his Olympic dream.
It was the first time rugby sevens had appeared at the Olympics and was eventually won by Fiji.
Although the Eagles were narrowly knocked out in the group stage, Isles’ speed was on full show as he clocked up an impressive six tries.
“Man, it meant everything to me,” Isles said of his Rio 2016 Olympic experience.
“My goal was just to go to the Olympics, I didn’t know it would be in rugby but the ultimate goal was achieved. I don’t even think about it much, but I made my childhood dream true… I’m an Olympian.”
The Mike Friday effect
By 2014, the United States boasted a squad containing some of the rugby sevens’ most naturally-gifted athletes.
The last piece of the puzzle was having a coach to give them belief.
That coach was Mike Friday, who also spoke to Olympic Channel about U.S.A. Rugby’s rapid development.
The Englishman had a philosophy of developing his men as people as well as athletes, and his message resonated perfectly with Isles.
“Man, I love Mike Friday. That’s somebody that you’ll fight for, because he’ll have your back.
“He’s a heck of a coach, he’s very smart, he’s very loving and kind and funny. That’s somebody you can tell anything to. When you have a coach that not only believes in you, but also that you can have a conversation with about life, there’s nothing like it.
“He knows how each individual is, and he knows how to get us back on track individually and knows when something’s wrong. He’s a good friend and he’s a guy that likes to win.”
Ambitious Olympic mission
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a man who has built his career on speed, Isles is already looking towards his next challenge: To compete at Tokyo 2020 as both a sprinter and a rugby player.
The American has even worked out a road map of how he can achieve his unique mission.
“I told myself in 2012 that I was going to do it (rugby and sprinting) in 2016, but during Olympic track and field trials, I had a selection camp for rugby, so I could only concentrate on that.
“But I was like at (Tokyo) 2020, I’m going to do both. I’ll try and make the (athletics) outdoor world championships too this year. That’s my goal, in 2020 I’m doing both.”
Isles v Gatlin: Coming soon?
For even the most talented athletes, this would be a tall order. But given the company that Isles keeps, and his habit of making the improbable a reality, you wouldn’t want bet against him.
He counts among his very good friends 2004 100m Olympic champion Justin Gatlin, second-fastest 100m runner ever Tyson Gay, 2017 100m world champion Christian Coleman and up-and-coming track star Noah Lyles.
Isles still trains on the track alongside rugby and even plans to take on some of his fast friends at the end of the year.
“I’m always talking to Justin Gatlin and I’ll go and train with him probably after the season.
“Hopefully I can beat him! He’s very fast and very powerful so I’ll have to race him again and see what’s up. What you got, J?
“I’ll try and hit up Christian Coleman as well. So yeah, I talk to those guys and I talk to Noah Lyles who’s been killing it but especially Justin, he’s a good friend of mine.”
As far as a sprinting barometer for success goes, Isles can’t do much better than that quartet.
RUGBY 7S STAR ISLES CHALLENGES USAIN BOLT: “I CAN BEAT HIM OVER 60M”
Can lightening run on ice?
A slightly more well-trodden path in elite sport is that of the sprinter switching to bobsleigh.
Granted it’s still an immense challenge, but several have tried, including Americans Tyson Gay and James Bailey.
True to form, Isles believes that he could also make the move to ice once his rugby career is finished.
“I told myself that I would do rugby, track, skeleton or maybe bobsleigh (at a future Olympics).
“I’ll basically still be young so I don’t know, I’m deciding as we speak… I may retire, who knows? As long as my body is feeling good and feeling fresh, I don’t see why I can’t go until Paris 2024 and beyond.
Finding ‘peace, joy and contentment’
Isles has learned to appreciate the important, ‘non tangible’ things in life, while making the most of any opportunity that comes his way.
As well as his quest to stun the world with his speed, Isles is also on a mission to inspire others to achieve their dreams.
“I think a lot of people get caught up with the tangibles and then they don’t know how to have peace, joy and contentment.
“That’s the important thing because it doesn’t matter how much you gain or what you accomplish, if your internal part isn’t whole, then you won’t be able to appreciate the tangibles in life and you won’t be happy.”
A life forged by harsh beginnings and the rigors of professional sport has given Isles a strong sense of perspective, and inner peace.