Last Saturday at the West qualifier in Kansas City, the fastest man in American rugby made an impressive play.
He caught the ball standing nearly still about 20 meters from the touch line, and, upon his coach yelling, “skin him”, referring to the Denver Barbarian defender crouched across from him, Carlin Russell Isles sprinted for the white chalk of the touch line.
Despite having a savory angle of pursuit, the defender failed to so much as touch the Aspen wing, who turned the corner and blazed 80 meters for a try to tie the game at 19-19 with no time left on the clock of the Cup Quarterfinal.
In overtime, Isles took the ball into contact, leading to the turnover which gave the Barbos the win and eliminated Aspen. However, the Gentlemen of Aspen needed to win the game to keep their hopes at qualifying for Nationals alive, and the fastest man in American rugby, in only his second tournament ever, gave them that chance at the end of regulation.
Isles is a new crossover prospect, coming from the world of professional track. Only 36 people recorded a faster 100-meter time on American soil than Isles in 2012. Without the aid of wind at his back, Isles clocked a 10.24 100-meter dash. With the wind, he ran a 10.13.
Isles had the chance to run in the Olympic trials in June, but would have been a severe long shot to make Team USA for the upcoming London Games.
Enamored by the Olympic rings, Carlin looked for alternative pathways into a Team USA jersey. Isles had seen rugby on TV before and, through track, knew there was a team training in at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. He turned to the internet for more information and found the story of another rugby crossover.
“I was watching Youtube videos, and I saw Miles Craigwell, and then I emailed Miles and I asked him about rugby and he told me it’s a great sport,” Isles told RUGBYMag.
“So that got me motivated to play it. The only thing I knew of was 15s, and then I saw 7s, and I was like I’d be in heaven in this sport.”
Isles then emailed USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville, who contacted him and, impressed by Isles’ track numbers, forwarded his information to Eagles 7s coach Alex Magleby. Magleby passed his information to Eagles assistant and Aspen 7s coach Andy Katoa.
Shortly thereafter, Isles was skipping the Olympic trials and on his way to Aspen, where he‘s been training with Katoa and playing on the West qualification circuit.
“If I up and leave, I’m sacrificing a lot,” Isles recalled thinking when pondering a possible switch to rugby, “and I just up and left. I thought I could love rugby and be one of the greatest in rugby, and I went for it.”
An Ohio native, Isles grew up playing football and running track. He did both for two years at Ashland University, a DII school in Ashland, Ohio, before moving to Texas to pursue a track career. He got a sponsor, started working out with Olympic runners like Bianca Knight and Mike Rodgers and worked at a child care center.
This weekend, he’ll be playing for Atlantis, who is entered in Victoria 7s as a US Developmental team under the watchful eyes of Magleby and 7s All Americans coach Tony Pacheco.
5-8 and 160 pounds, Isles is the smallest player on the Atlantis roster (an inch shorter and 10 pounds lighter than BYU’s Shaun Davies). But he’s not afraid of contact. A cornerback and running back at Ashland, Isles knows how to take and deliver hits.
“I love contact. I’m good at tackling. I love tackling,” said Isles. “Rugby fits me perfectly, because I love tackling, I love running fast, I love running past people and I love being the fastest.”
Isles’ speed and affinity for contact are what have Katoa excited about his new wing.
“Besides Dallas Robinson, I thought that Carlin was the first track guy who didn’t really shy away from contact. He’s not afraid. I know what his size is, but you look at some of the great ones in the IRB world and they’re not that big, either,” said Katoa.
“With time, I think he can develop. Somebody that fast, I can honestly say that he’s got the speed, and some of that speed we need on the US team.”
Robinson is an interesting comparison. Recruited to rugby by Caravelli, Robinson got injured and gave up the sport. Now, he’s on the USA Bobsled team. Like Isles, the characters of Disney Jamaican bobsled movie Cool Runnings, were Olympic-hopeful sprinters looking for an alternative avenue into the Games.
Isles, by relocating to Aspen and showing an exemplary work ethic, which Katoa lauds, has made the first step toward potentially making the Eagle squad. If he shows well in Victoria, with Magleby watching, he could take another.
With many of last year’s contracted players expected back and Sevens World Cup qualification beginning this fall, Isles is a long shot to make the Eagle squad immediately, but he could be a candidate to play on developmental sides under the guidance of Magleby, like Atlantis, and make a run at a roster spot sooner or later.
Isles knows the odds he'll become an Eagle or make the Olympics as a rugby player are against him, but he doesn't mind fighting those odds.
"The gamble I took for this, a lot of people where like what are you doing," said Isles, "but I’m proving that if you put your mind to it, you can do whatever you want. You’ve just got to work hard and you've got to want it."