Men’s Eagles Sevens retain speed with Carlin Isles

MOSCOW, Russia - This month marks one year since Carlin Isles, world’s fastest rugby player, has stepped onto a rugby pitch. In his short career however, he’s become one of the biggest stars in rugby and this week was named one of the “Top Ten Sevens Stars Set to Shine” by the International Rugby Board. With a recent contract on the table from the French team Toulon, a Nike deal in the books, and the countdown to Rugby World Cup, USA Rugby took the chance to catch up on his busy year.

Considering his short time on the scene, competing in this weekend’s Rugby World Cup is quite a feat. When asked about his recent success however, Isles responds with the simple humility he has become known for.

“People work their whole lives to be in this position and I am blessed to be here. I know I’m not the best and I still have a lot to learn,” expressed Isles.

Playing international rugby has been a complete learning process for Isles, but the flying Eagle is open about taking the challenge one step at a time.

“At first I was just trying to get the hang of things, the picture, and the more I played the more detailed the picture became--reading the defenses, the space, the switches, using my step to my advantage. My field vision is definitely improving. Defensively, I’m also feeling more comfortable and getting in a better position in relation to the attackers.”

The former track and field star is also enjoying the team atmosphere and culture that are inherent to the sport of rugby. With the team training full-time at the Olympic Training Center (OTC), as well as traveling for nine different stops on the 2013 HSBC Sevens World Series, the closeness of the team provides a stark difference from his previous efforts in the world of track.

“The difference between track and rugby is that track is very individual. You mainly practice on your own, warm-up on your own, mentally prepare yourself and then do the work. It’s hard. After that you have a lot of down time, especially if you don’t have any family or friends nearby, so it’s a very lonely sport. With rugby there is a different culture and cohesion with your teammates. It’s like a family here. You are going to have your own time for a little bit, but then you have your teammates to support you, and people around you. I love that setting.”

Isles, born November 12, 1989, attended Jackson High School (Massillion, Ohio) where his 2007 100m school record of 10.58 seconds also set a county record at that time. Other records included the 200m, 400m, long-jump and 4x100m relay. He also played American football while at Ashland University becoming an All-GLIAC selection, holding school records for most kickoff return yardage in a game (174 yards) and longest kickoff return for TD (100 yards).

The sprinter’s personal best time of 10.13 seconds in the 100m would have secured him a semifinal place at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. Luckily for rugby, the 36th fastest sprinter in the United States turned his attention to the newest Olympic sport.

Isles’ debut on the HSBC Sevens World Series in October of 2012 at the Gold Coast Sevens in Australia produced a try against New Zealand in his first 60 seconds of international competition. Isles - mainly coming off the bench as a substitute - used his sublime speed to score several amazing tries. A YouTube video posted in December 2012 featuring some of them went viral and quickly racked up over 3 million views.

In February of this year, in front of a home crowd at the Vegas 7s tournament, Isles was able to score two superb tries to help the Eagles defeat Spain 22-7 in the team’s only pool play win.

The Eagles Sevens sensation is a pleasure to interview, and has been featured in media all over the world. From the New York Times to The Guardian, Isles has consumed much of the USA Rugby spotlight, but maintains a philosophy which has served him well.

“I stay humble and don’t let it get to me,” Isles says. “I try to keep it more about the team.”

Though the year has been focused on his rugby training, Isles regularly takes the time to maintain his speed on his own. He reminded his fans that he hasn’t lost it when he managed to get in a quick race earlier this June at the OTC in Chula Vista, San Diego.

Despite picking up some needed rugby weight, Isles won the race, beating his friend Avery in the process.

“I had sevens training in the morning, was extremely tired, but wanted to support Jerome (Avery) who was competing. But after warming up I decided I wanted to run the race and see what I can do. I started fast, and finished in 10.33 seconds.”

Isles might be fast, but he understands he has a way to go in the sport. Isles met Men’s Eagle Taku Ngwenya for the first time in LA two weeks ago, and admitted that he is one of his ‘idols, especially rugby wise.’

“He’s very good, fast, and I love his step! He wrote me a message on Facebook last week, which meant a lot to me.”

Ngwenya became famous in world rugby after rounding Springbok legend Bryan Habana during the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France. South Africa went on to win the Webb Ellis trophy, but the try of the tournament belonged to the Eagles winger. Ngwenya was then contracted by Biarittz in France, and has been there ever since, playing recently in the Heineken Cup Final.

The past few months have been busy for Isles, and a bit uncertain, having recently been offered a very lucrative contract by the French club Toulon-- a remarkable feat considering he’s played only 20-minutes of fifteens rugby in his entire career. Isles played those precious minutes for San Diego’s Old Aztecs, scoring a long-range try in the process.

“Toulon was talking with me about a one year contract, with an option for another year’s renewal. One of their foreign players was injured, which opened the door for me. My agent contacted me, and despite being nervous due to lack of fifteens playing time, I really wanted to go.”

Isles had put in his 30-day notice at his apartment in Chula Vista, and was supposed to sign the contract in July. However, his agent explained they had some issues with the foreign player that was injured and the contract wasn’t signed.

Photo by Martin Seras Lima

“Sometimes you have to give up on something good in order to get something better. I know God’s plan is greater for me,” said a smiling Isles.

For now the speedster is staying with the Eagles Sevens squad and aiming to be at the 2016 Olympics.

“To be the player I want to be, I need to continue to read the game. Being more comfortable is important. I get the picture now, so it’s all about repetitions. The more I can put myself in those situations the more comfortable it becomes.”

Isles has also been offered a four-year personal sponsorship deal with Nike ahead of the Olympic Games. One other Eagle Sevens player, and USA leading try scorer Zack Test, has also signed with Nike. Though sponsorship deals are commonplace in other sports, the Isles and Test contracts are a rare occurence in the world of American rugby.

“My dream as a kid was to be sponsored by Nike,” said Isles. “Through this I also hope to create some opportunities for other American rugby players.”

As far as the Rugby World Cup goes, Isles aims “to do my best to help the team, showcase my skills and show my progress after this season. I just want to go out and contribute.”

Isles is also a media sensation, visit him on Facebook and Twitter. In fact - Isles, along with Test, captain Matt Hawkins and Colin Hawley, will be doing a LIVE Q&A on Twitter with @IRBsevens on Wednesday at 6:00 PM local Russian time, 10:00 AM ET in the United States.

Watch Isles featured by the IRB on Total Rugby.