When Carlin Isles started playing rugby at age 21, he had $500 to his name and no knowledge of the game.
Now 26, Isles had already been nationally recognized as a runner when he stumbled upon a rugby video on YouTube. He was studying techniques to improve his race on the track, but he said he felt himself drawn to the new sport.
Isles knew rugby was coming to the Summer Olympics in 2016, and after seeing the size of the field, he was sure he could use his sprinting talents to his advantage.
Four days after he spoke to the CEO of USA Rugby, he packed up everything he owned, dropped his chances to make the Track and Field Olympic team and moved to Aspen, Colorado, to play rugby.
“I put all my eggs in one basket. There wasn’t no (sic) plan B,” Isles said. “So, for me, it had to work out.”
He said he cried on his way there, worrying about whether he made the right decision.
Desperate to prove himself, Isles practiced for a month to bring himself up to the level he needed to be at on the National Team. And it worked.
Fellow players couldn’t believe it. They thought Isles had been playing for longer than just one month. His friends and family said Isles was too small — that he was going to get himself killed.
But he didn’t care.
“A lot of people doubted me, some people thought I was crazy,” Isles said. “My main thing was, I’m going to paint my picture how I want to paint it.”
Isles’ desire and work ethic is what sets him apart, said USA Rugby Coach Mike Friday.
“He’s eternally working hard on being in the best condition he can be and studying the game,” Friday said. “It’s not been easy for him, but his insane desire and work ethic have kind of stood him in good stead.”
Although Friday started coaching USA Rugby in 2014 and did not coach Isles during his introduction to the game, he said Isles has made improvements in every aspect of the game.
“I think people forget it’s taken (Isles) four years to get where he is, and he can still be better,” Friday said. “I think his desire to be a rugby player should be commended.”
A HARD CHILDHOOD
Isles and his twin sister were in foster care for two years until he was 8 after they were taken away from their home in Ohio because their parents were doing drugs.
He remembers being 6 and playing outside when a group of cops swarmed, taking his mom away. There were a bunch of daisies on the ground, and Isles gave his mom one.
That was the last time he saw her.
Isles struggled for the two years he was in the system. He had a hard time in school, got in fights and ran away because he didn’t want to live with his foster parents anymore.
“It was just us; we had each other,” Isles said about his twin sister. “That was tough for a young kid to endure those types of things.”
But it taught him to not shy away from adversity in his life.
“The struggle made me who I am,” he said. “When you have the wisdom and knowledge and go through tough things, you can reflect and understand what you can do… I thank God for the struggle because it made me so strong and so much wiser.”
He said it doesn’t matter where someone comes from or how much money they have.
All that matters is that they have the right amount of faith and trust.
THE FASTEST RUGBY PLAYER IN THE WORLD
Isles has been labeled the fastest rugby player in the world. His teammates are quick, but being a sprinter gives him that extra advantage.
He was training to be a sprinter and hoped to compete in both rugby and track and field in Rio.
But Olympic trials fell in the middle of a Team USA rugby camp, so Isles decided to not run at trials and potentially hurt his chances of making the rugby team.
Earlier this year, Isles finished fifth in the 60m at the 2016 Indoor Track and Field Championships, and his time that qualified him for trials would have ranked him eighth in the country in the 100-meter.
“I fell for rugby, which was the goal, but I’ve always got a niche with track and field,” Isles said. “I’m still fast. Rugby has helped me a lot, and I feel like I can be even faster.”
Isles isn’t the only rugby player to cross over from another sport. Miles Craigwell played football at Brown University before being drafted to the NFL. He started rugby in a similar fashion to Isles, never having played the sport a day in his life.
And like Craigwell, Isles hasn’t slowed down since he started playing rugby. He attributes that to doing all of the little things, like technique, correctly, which helps his training transfer over.
He knows if rugby practice is light on the legs, he should head over to the track to get some more training in.
Although he’s played many other sports—football, basketball and track—rugby was what caught Isles’ heart.
“[Rugby] fulfills some of … the emptiness that I found,” Isles said. “If you’re not doing something you love, then you kind of feel empty. And for rugby, I don’t feel empty because I was able to showcase my gift.
“I feel alive when I do it, when I run fast.”