“What’s the hardest thing about rugby, Carlin?” The question is called from somewhere deep in the belly of the crowd gathered before the national men’s sevens team at the National Development Summit in Costa Mesa, Cali., earlier this year.
“All the running!” answers Carlin Isles, 23-year-old crossover athlete and breakout sevens star. Laughter erupts throughout the room, and for good reason.
Isles is a former sprinter and football player at Ashland University in Ohio, and was a potential Olympic contender in the 100-meter dash until just last summer, when he decided — without ever having touched a rugby ball — that he would like to become the fastest man in rugby instead. “I liked the speed of the game. I saw how much space there was, and I was like, ‘You know, I think I’d be pretty good at this,’” says Isles. On a whim, he emailed USA Rugby’s CEO, Nigel Melville, who in turn put him in touch with head Eagles Sevens coach Alex Magleby and team manager Andy Katoa. Four days later, Isles moved to Aspen to learn the game in a hurry. And that’s exactly what he did, progressing from Aspen club player to Atlantis player to resident sevens athlete in Chula Vista in a single month.
Isles has since flourished on the international sevens stage, captivating crowds with his flash and his heart. His YouTube highlight reel, “Carlin Isles. Olympic Dream,” is rapidly closing in on 3 million views, and that was posted before his stellar performances at the USA Sevens in Vegas and beyond.
He’s dead serious about running being the toughest part of the game, though. “It’s difficult because in rugby, you’ve got to train a lot of different energy systems. In track, I only had to train one,” Isles says. What he’s referring to are the phosphagen, glycolytic and oxidative energy systems. There exists overlap between them, but primarily, phosphagen (also called ATP-CP or anaerobic) is the one called upon by sprinters and jumpers for extremely short bursts of energy; the glycolytic is tapped for max-effort activities that last up to two minutes; and the oxidative (or aerobic) system fuels longer, slower tasks.
The muscle fibers recruited for different tasks vary, as well. These bodily systems are vastly complex, but essentially, fast-twitch muscle fibers are reserved for sprints and jumps, slow-twitch provide your slower-paced transportation, and a third type, called fast oxidative glycolytic (FOG) fibers, are your switch-hitters — and the way you train can teach FOG fibers to act fast or act slow.
Rugby is tricky because although international players may travel many miles per game, they’ve also got to be ready to go screaming down the pitch at top speed on command. Isles is worried — perhaps rightly so — about losing a step by logging too much distance. “You might not get everything that you need for speed out of practice because we do a lot of volume running, so I get up really early in the morning and do my own speed stuff,” he says. “I want to be as fast as I should be.” So far, Isles’ fast-twitch fibers remain in demonstrably powerful shape, recently nailing a 42-inch single-leg box jump during training.
Extra speed work isn’t Isles’ only secret — he’s also usually 10 pounds heavier than when he steps on the pitch. He wears a weight vest absolutely everywhere he goes, even warming up and doing noncontact drills in it. “A lot of people think that it’s bad for your knee joints, or that you’ll get injured. But if it’s light, it’s fine, because it won’t hinder technique,” says Isles. “Even though I weigh 167 pounds, I’m practicing like I’m 177. So whenever it comes off, I’m able to move a lot quicker. It builds elasticity.”
That elasticity is electric. “I have never been on the field with anyone with his pace. He’s new to the sport, but he’s a student of the game, ready and willing to take lessons and advice from team members with 20 or so more tournaments under their belts,” says teammate and tour veteran Colin Hawley, 26. “He’s a massive weapon, and we intend to help him use his gifts the best way possible on the rugby pitch.”
One of his less obvious gifts is his attitude. After a standout performance in Vegas in February, Isles made his way around the USA Sevens after-party with Katoa, sipping water and thanking his supporters individually for what they’ve done for him. He’s not humble, exactly, because he will happily tell you just how fast he is and how much faster he plans to get, but “thankful” is accurate.
"Carlin puts his head down and works. He comes to training every day to get better. Brings a smile, too, even when it’s tough,” says Magleby. “He isn't afraid of a challenge in the tackle or ruck. His passing and kicking are getting better, and he is working on his footwork and running-line choices.”
In some ways, Isles’ progress is representative of the team’s trajectory. “We’ve come a long way. We’ve made a lot of changes. Our failures as a team, our lack of unity and other adversity has helped us mature as a group, see things more clearly,” says Isles. “We’re coming together strong, and I think we’re going to be a real threat.”