Carlin Isles leads U.S. rugby sevens at Olympics while being led by God

Five years ago, the U.S. men’s rugby sevens squad suffered an early exit from the 2016 Rio Olympics, failing to reach the quarterfinals despite not losing a match in pool play (one win, two draws). This year in Tokyo, the team has already exceeded that effort.

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The Americans defeated both Ireland and Kenya on Monday, clinching a berth in the Olympic knockout rounds for the first time (rugby sevens debuted as an Olympic sport in 2016). They will face South Africa, the bronze medalist from 2016, in their final pool match later Monday (10:30 p.m ET; 11:30 a.m. Tuesday in Tokyo), and regardless of the result, both 2-0 teams will advance.

The first man to put points on the board for the U.S. was Carlin Isles, referred to by many as the fastest man in rugby. He scored a try about midway through the first half against Kenya to go up 5-0. Kenya took a 14-12 lead in the second half, but the U.S. scored another try in the last minute to secure the win. In their second game against Ireland, the U.S. jumped to an early 12-0 and held on for a 19-17 win.

The U.S. is not a traditional power in rugby, but its men’s sevens team is on the rise. The goal in Tokyo is pretty simple: win gold. The biggest competition is themselves, says Isles.

“There’s no way we shouldn’t do that,” Isles told Sports Spectrum in the spring for a feature in the Summer 2021 magazine. “With the team we have, with the work ethic that we have and the coaching staff that we have, there’s no way. We’ve just got to worry about the process, do the best we can and let the outcome be the outcome. As long as we know we drilled the process and owned the process, we’re going to be very confident going into Tokyo. It’s all about who is going to persevere the most and who can stay on task. I think we can do that. We are doing that.”

Isles is especially motivated to win after the past year he’s endured. The year delay for the Olympics was difficult enough, but in November 2020, his younger brother, Chase, was shot and killed. The past year has been about learning to adapt, Isles said.

“I fought through that with a different perspective,” Isles said. “That was tough, especially for our family. I missed a lot of rugby. I missed a lot of things, but I continued to train. So, for me, what I already knew about myself is I’m able to continue keeping my objective over anything. I am so self-sufficient and am able to work hard regardless of anything that’s happening or come my way.”

That perspective, he said, was shaped by his faith in God. Even amid the pain and uncertainty of the past year, he felt God’s provision through it all.

This was far from the first season of hurt he’s endured. As a child, he and his sister, Tambra, were in and out of foster homes, and Carlin has only met his birth father once. He struggled in school and often found himself in fights, usually from defending his sister. He remembers praying to God to get him out of the foster care system, and he said it wasn’t but two days later that he and his sister got adopted by Charles and Starlett Isles.

That was when he knew God was real, he said, and years later he gave his life to God.

“His will, His timing,” Isles said. “Whatever is done is for His glory and what’s best for Him. I never lose that. It’s not about me. We’re all children of God. Whenever it’s somebody’s time, that’s their time. I’ve kind of kept that perspective and relied on His strength. When I did that, I was fine. It’s OK not being fine, but I was fine because I knew who I was relying on, and that’s Him.”

Now his focus is on using the opportunity God has given him to perform the best he can and help his team win.

Dubbed “the fastest man in rugby,” he became somewhat of an internet sensation when videos of him earlier in his career running and juking out defenders caught people’s attention. He used the year delay to increase his training, even his already-exceptional speed, and focus on making any improvements he could. Even while he’s in Japan, he’s continued training.

Isles ran the 40-yard dash in 4.13 seconds in high school, which would’ve set the record had it been run at the NFL combine. In college he was an All-American in the 60-meter dash with a time fast enough to qualify him for the Olympic trials, but ultimately not quite good enough to make the team.

In somewhat of a flukey scenario, when his athletic career was in limbo, Isles stumbled across a YouTube video that explained rugby. He wondered if he could play the sport given his previous football experience and his speed. In what was sort of a last-ditch effort, he made a call to some team officials at USA Rugby, flew to Colorado, and tried out for a club team.

He impressed enough to not only make the team, but also the U.S. national team. He went on to compete at the 2016 Olympics, and the next chapter of his story is being written this week. He hopes his story will inspire others to trust in their own abilities, but ultimately, in God’s faithfulness as well.

“I just always wanted to use my gift,” Isles said for the magazine. “I opened my heart and let God take the wheel, instead of me saying, ‘No, I’m going to stick to this.’ Because you may limit yourself. Many times you may limit yourself so much that what you want isn’t what’s best for you, and maybe not best for you but also others. You can touch a lot of other people. So for me, I opened my heart and said, ‘God, if this is what’s best for You, if this is what You want me to do, I’ll do it.’”

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