WELLINGTON, New Zealand - Carlin Isles reached the most important decision of his sporting career in the way he has done everything in sports: very quickly. He was a world-ranked sprinter with a 100-meter time of 10.24 seconds and was preparing for the U.S. Olympic trials And then, in a flash, he was a rugby player. The decision to cease being one kind of athlete to become another hit him with what he describes as a vision of his new direction in life.
WELLINGTON, New Zealand - Carlin Isles reached the most important decision of his sporting career in the way he has done everything in sports: very quickly.
He was a world-ranked sprinter with a 100-meter time of 10.24 seconds and was preparing for the U.S. Olympic trials
And then, in a flash, he was a rugby player. The decision to cease being one kind of athlete to become another hit him with what he describes as a vision of his new direction in life.
"I wanted to go to the Olympics and be one of the top sprinters in the world," Isles told reporters in Wellington, where he will play for the United States in the fourth round of the World Rugby Sevens series. "But I had a vision.
"God switched my plan and my heart and my decision. I had a vision of rugby and I wanted other people to see that vision."
Ohio-born Isles, 23, said he'd already been courted by scouts from the National Football League which meant the concept of moving from track and field to a contact sport was neither alien to him nor disturbing. While surfing the internet he found footage of sevens rugby and realized that, in its reduced form, rugby was an open field sport in which his abilities as a sprinter were common currency.
Moreover, rugby was now an Olympics sport: set to make its return to the Olympic program in Sevens form at Rio in 2016.
"I was getting ready for the Olympic trials after qualifying for it and I don't know, I just decided I wanted to play rugby," said Isles, who was ranked 36th in the U.S. for the 100. "I was watching it and I thought 'I don't want to wait another four years in case I don't make (the Olympics). I want to be known.'
"I had a vision. I didn't want to be a back-seat guy for another four years. I thought I had too much talent. My mind is always open to let God direct me, so I just went with it. So far it's paying off."
The first Sevens footage that Isles watched featured Miles Craigwell, a former linebacker for Brown University who made the switch to rugby sevens in 2010 and has since been a regular in the U.S. team. Isles emailed Craigwell, who supported and assisted his transition to rugby.
He then contacted Nigel Melville, the chief executive of USA Rugby, who passed on his athletics resume to U.S. Sevens coach Alex Magleby and Isles found himself within months a member of the U.S. team. He was broken in as a rugby player in Colorado with the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Club, and any doubts about the wisdom of his switch dispelled when he scored a try 46 seconds into his first World Sevens Series match.
Isles has a sprinter's frame and weighs around 80 kilograms (176 pounds) but has no fears that he is unsuited to rugby's bruising nature. He ran track and played football for Ashland University and NFL scouts saw no disadvantage in his size. Besides, judging by his first season, he doesn't bother running through opposition defences because he can run around them.
"The NFL scouts they loved me because I had a 4.1 second 40m and that drew a lot of attention," Isles said. "I never thought I was too small, I always believed in myself. Anything that I choose I have to prove myself.
"One thing you can't teach is speed and everyone is looking for speed. I could play so I wasn't worried about my size because I have heart. But I decided to do track and go professional and pursue that instead."
Isles says courage and confidence are his precursors to success. In his first season, he scored tries against Sevens teams representing New Zealand and South Africa, countries with long and proud rugby traditions and where kids grow up playing the game.
"You've just got to have that mentality, especially against others," he said. "If you show that you're weak they can use it against you, so you've got to have that cool swagger about you."
Isles may have blazed a trail along which many former sprinters will follow into rugby Sevens. Olympic places in sprint disciplines are few and fiercely contested, but rugby provides a much more liberal selection option. Because of its modified rules, reduced players and time, sevens isn't suited to some of the physiques more common in the traditional 15-a-side game. It means smaller, faster players aren't always combating colossal opponents, making it more attractive to the sprinters.
When women's sevens became an Olympics sport, the New Zealand Rugby Union simply advertised in national newspapers for women with athletics ability who wished to win a gold medal. In rugby-loving New Zealand, they saw the admission of rugby to the Olympics as the shortest distance between two points; between the dream of winning a gold medal and its realization.
Isles obviously shared a similar vision.