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Sunday’s Olympic qualification was a win to be shared by everyone in American rugby, but the taste of victory was perhaps sweetest for Carlin Isles. In 2012 he made the bold, and according to many in his circle at the time, crazy decision to walk away from track and pursue a sport he’d never played.
Isles had qualified to sprint at the 2012 Olympic Trials ahead of the London Games. His chances of making the team were slim, and he wasn’t ready to give up the dream of becoming an Olympian. So he got in touch with USA Rugby and, instead of making up the numbers at the Trials, headed off to Aspen for a summer of learning with a vision next to no one shared. Three long years later he’s helped Team USA, of which he'll surely be a part when the plane leaves for Rio, qualify for the 2016 Games.
Every other men’s Eagle had at least played rugby before pursuing a spot on the national team and picked up the game well before 2012. On the women’s side, there are players with crossover stories similar to Isles’, but the women’s team has always been an international threat.
When Isles came to rugby, specifically in an effort to get to the national team and the Olympics, the men had just finished 11th in the World Series, going the entire season without making a single Cup Quarterfinal. Isles was joining a team that didn’t look like it belonged on the Series, let alone in the Olympics.
“It’s still crazy. At the beginning I had a plan, and I had a vision. My thing was I wanted to make the Olympics, and I wanted to inspire people,” said Isles. “I know people doubted me and thought I was crazy and stuff. At the end of it, I knew God’s plan for me. In the end, now they can see what I see.”
Even for Isles, the dreamer foolish enough to set such a plan in motion, doubt would creep in. Not right away. He made the national team in record time, earning a training contract just a few months into his rugby career, and gained instant fame in cyberspace and on the Series. His first season finished with the Eagles soaring to three-straight top-eight finishes. Even if Isles didn’t feature heavily in the team’s success down the stretch, he'd made tidal waves as a rookie and the future looked bright.
Year two it all changed. Alex Magleby stepped down as coach and Matt Hawkins took over. He and Isles mixed like oil and water, and Isles wore a hole on Team USA’s bench, which returned the favor on Isles' nerves and confidence.
“I questioned myself and I questioned what am I doing and tried to find different outlets, thinking maybe I should do something else, and I started questioning my ability – Am I good? How do I get better? So many things playing with my mind,” recalled Isles.
“I almost didn’t get picked for a tour, and I’m like, man, I know I’m good enough to get picked. I’m on the bench a lot and not playing. I really started second-guessing myself, and I wasn’t having fun. That was really tough for me. I wasn’t playing a lot, and people didn’t see what I saw in myself. I needed to get away and try to do something else. I always had the dream of going to the Olympics, but there was a lot of dark days.”
Most don’t know how close he was to leaving rugby altogether. He toyed with the NFL, having signed a futures contract with the Detroit Lions, and he eventually did leave the 7s team for a stint with the Glasgow Warriors. But he almost just left, not for a contract or a better opportunity, but to simply get away.
“There were a lot of times I would say, ‘If they don’t play me enough or I keep having to sit the bench, then this is going to be my last tour. I’m just going to be done.’ There were plenty of times when that happened, and I’d end up playing maybe two or three minutes, and I’d do something as soon as I’d get the ball and score, and then I’d remember why God brought me here and remember when people used to cheer and be happy when I did something special,” said Isles.
“That always brought me back to reality – whenever you get your shot just make the best of it. I just wanted to keep on inspiring people, and that really helped me and pushed me to keep on going, because there were a couple of times I almost did walk away. I think my love for the sport, more than anything else, helped me stay, and the fans the people who believed in me and my goals and my vision that I had.”
The months Isles spent in Europe were transformative. He was able to get away from a soul draining environment, recharge his batteries, get a new perspective on the game … and meet Mike Friday.
“Once I got away from 7s a little bit it helped to be around different people and cultures and learn and mature a little bit,” said Isles, who was far from a finished product as a rugby player or a man.
“It helped to be with Mike Friday and play with Samurai. Training with him and him using me and helping me and actually developing me as a player, I saw how much better I could be. That really made it much more fun, because I just felt like I was stuck. He really helped me develop as a player, and he understood me as a person.”
Before Friday had officially been announced as the next Eagles coach, Isles made his decision to return to 7s. He was a fish out of water in 15s and that image of the five rings never fully left his purview. When Friday was announced as coach, it just further fanned Isles' re-sparked flame.
Another arrival was equally big for the speedster, that of Perry Baker. The two racehorses had met at a camp during Isles’ first season, and they nearly squared off at Melrose 7s when Baker was with Tiger and Isles with Glasgow.
“We just clicked, and it was one of the biggest blessings to my life and to our squad, so I’m really glad he came,” said Isles of Baker. “He understands me, and I understand him. We both got the same goals and the same dreams. I’ve never been so close to somebody in my life. He’s like a brother, probably better than a brother, and I’ve never had anyone like that in my life.”
Baker and Isles are almost never on the field together at the same time. When one comes off, the other comes on. Where Isles used to wander negatively in his head while riding the pine in seasons past, a more mature version doesn’t now, when his best friend is on the field instead of him.
“He really brought the best out of me. We always encourage each other. We’re always there for each other, and we’re always helping each other out. Our faith, our belief in each other and knowing what we want out of life has made us close,” said Isles.
“Just having him, and me coming on at the end of the game, or he’s coming on in the second half, we just know that we feed off each other. If he’s making plays in the first half, then I know I have to make plays.”
Isles and Baker have helped transcend Team USA. At any given moment in a 14-minute game or a 20-minute final, the Eagles are going to have the fastest man on the field. They’re always going to have a homerun hitter at the plate and another on deck. No one would have thought that possible back in 2012, except Isles.