RIO DE JANEIRO – Carlin Isles packed all he owned into his Hyundai Sonata and slammed the door shut. He had a dream and a destination and about $500 to his name. He figured he needed $250 of it for gas to make the drive to Aspen, Colorado. Once he left that day in 2012, he told himself there was no going back: no turning around to Austin, Texas, no more track and field, no more running the 100 meters in the Olympics. If it doesn’t work out, he thought, I’m screwed.
In his mind, Isles had switched careers from sprinting to rugby, which registered somewhere between bold and reckless, owing to the fundamental fact he had never actually played rugby. He’d watched a few highlights online, decided he might be good and sent an email to a man he had never met. The man offered him a chance. For some reason, Isles decided he had to do it, that he had found his path to the Olympics. He was, once he put the Hyundai’s pedal down, a rugby player. He was so scared, he cried.
“I guess I had faith,” Isles said. “And faith carried me through.”
Tuesday afternoon, the United States will play its first Olympic men’s rugby game since 1924, the last time the Games included the sport. Isles, 26, will become an Olympian, perhaps the most improbable in Rio. Four years after his first practice, after he left his old life as an Olympic-hopeful sprinter, Isles has become one of the best players in the world at rugby sevens.
Isles once ran the 100 meters in 10.15 seconds, fast enough to make the Olympics from most countries, just not his own. He carries the unofficial title of the Fastest Man in Rugby; experts regard him as perhaps the fastest ever to play. The United States, which won gold in an upset at the 1924 Olympics, will be a significant underdog against experienced sides from Fiji, New Zealand, South Africa and other traditional powers. But they believe they have a chance, and Isles’s speed is a primary cause.
“A couple other countries have a fast guy,” U.S. captain Madison Hughes said. “No one really has anyone like Carlin.”
For a sport trying to make inroads in the United States, Isles’s story resonates. USA Rugby wants to thrive first on the appeal of Sevens, a fast-paced, hard-hitting, action-packed game that takes less than a half-hour to complete. It also wants to promote its potential to create crossover stars. Its most famous team member is Nate Ebner, a lifelong rugby player who walked on Ohio State’s football team as a junior and earned a spot as a special teams ace on the New England Patriots, which granted him permission to join Team USA for the Olympics. USA Rugby hopes to cull more new players from the ranks of football, lacrosse and others sports – such as, say, track.
In June 2012, Isles stood on the cusp of the Olympics, his dream since he started running track. He already had lived a remarkable life. Growing up in Ohio, he and his sister bounded between homelessness and foster homes for the first seven years of his life. Many days, he wondered if he would eat. He was adopted at age 8, which provided stability and allowed him to start running track and playing football. Those early years still resonate.
“It’s the motivation that’s deep inside you,” Isles said. “You’ve got to be there when others aren’t there for you, you know? I taught myself that.”
One night, about two weeks before the Olympic track trials, he watched clips of himself online to study his form. Other Olympic sports were listed on the side of the page, and when he saw rugby, he clicked. Highlights rolled. It looked tough and tenacious.
“I think I could be pretty good at this,” he thought.
The Olympics always had been his aim, but he wondered how realistic his chances were in the 100. He was one of the fastest men on Earth, but some of the only people faster blocked his path. In rugby, he saw another path.
On Google, Isles looked up contact information for Nigel Melville, then the CEO of USA Rugby. He found a number and sent a text at 5 a.m.:
“My name is Carlin Isles. I want to play rugby. I’m fast.”
Melville received dozens of pleas from athletes who wanted to play rugby, and typically ignored them. “I wouldn’t normally get back to somebody I had never heard of,” Melville said.
Something about Isles’s message made him curious, though, and he wrote back.
“10.1,” came the reply.
“Well, that’s fast,” Melville wrote back. “Where are you?”
They started chatting, and Melville looked up Isles online to verify that he was, in fact, as fast as he claimed. Melville invited Isles to come to USA Rugby’s headquarters in Aspen. Four days later, Isles drove from Austin to Aspen.
“I put all my eggs in one basket,” Isles said. “I’m like, ‘Man, this has gotta work. This has got to.'”
Melville tested Isles right away, putting him into a Sevens scrimmage. Isles wore a headband, not a typical look in rugby. “Mate,” Melville told him, “you really don’t need to wear that.” He lacked any feel for the game, but Melville thought Isles would be worth keeping in the program.
“He looked like a sprinter; he’s just really all over the pace,” Melville said. “But it was clear he was an incredible athlete. You could see potential.”
Isles moved to the training facility in Chula Vista, California, for a month, gaining confidence and learning the sport. Melville invited him on a U.S. development tour in Canada.
“I went there and tore it up,” Isles said. “The next day, I got a contract.”
In the next four years, Isles has become an integral part of the diverse U.S. team. He plays on the wing, where he can showcase his speed. Ebner, the Patriots special teamer, played football for two years at Ohio State and another six in the NFL. He has never played with or against, he said, a faster person.
“He’s so fast, he makes fast people look slow,” U.S. flanker Danny Barrett said. “You watch the series now, there are guys out there that under 11 seconds in 100 meters, and he makes them look slow. It’s unreal. It’s kind of a like a trump card. He’s definitely one of the guys we count on: We need a score now, end of the game, last minute or two, you gotta pull that speed out of somewhere.”
Isles has expanded his ability. He is not a fast guy playing rugby. He is a fast rugby player. In a qualifying match against Canada, Isles made his biggest contribution with three crucial, one-on-one tackles.
“He’s one of the top players in the world now,” said Melville, now the director of professional rugby for England. “He’s pretty resilient. He worked really hard. We have lots of people who want to come and play rugby, but they’re not willing to put the work in. Carlin was.”