Rugby World Cup Sevens: Carlin Isles, fastest man in rugby, wants Olympic 100m gold

Carlin Isles, the "fastest man in rugby," shows a clean pair of heels to Nelson Oyoo of Kenya during the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series London Sevens at Twickenham Stadium. Kieran Galvin/NurPhoto via Getty Images

All Carlin Isles has ever wanted to do is run, and run fast.

As a child, his speed helped provide solace against the struggles of bouncing around foster homes, often with an empty stomach. Today, it allows him to live out his dreams.

Sustenance was scarce for the future "fastest man in rugby" and his twin sister, Cambra, until they were adopted by Charles and Starlett Isles when they were 7-years-old. He has often spoken about the difficulty of staving off hunger while in foster care, where dog food was on the menu at times, and has since vowed never to let himself or his sister return to the hardship of their early childhood.

A fire was ignited deep within that helped him overcome struggles with literacy to become an All-American track athlete and a special teams football player at Ashland University. That fire continued to burn as he successfully changed sports and survived an horrific run of injuries, and it will be on display this weekend as Isles helps the U.S. Eagles in their quest to win the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco.

"The struggle put my mind in a different place," he tells ESPN of his early life. "I wanted to be somebody. I didn't want to let what happened to me be an excuse to why I couldn't be what I wanted. I chose to fight, and I had to fight hard."

Having excelled in college sports -- he still holds several school track and football records -- Isles was encouraged to consider a change in sports by U.S. National Rugby Team member Miles Craigwell six years ago.

A member of the U.S. Sevens program at the time, Craigwell's sale pitch was simple and appealed to Isles' love of running fast. The sport's inclusion in the Olympic Games in Rio, meanwhile, ensured he would not be turning on his back on a lifelong dream.

"In rugby [Sevens] I get the ball a lot, I'm able to run," Isles says. "When I get to run, I'm like 'this is what I love, yay, I'm free'. When I get the ball and I'm able to run, I feel like I'm free, I'm alive."

Sevens gives Isles the open space he has always craved, but putting down the pads and taking off the spikes came with an added challenge.

"I thought what if I became America's fastest rugby player?" he says. "The world's fastest rugby player? What if I started amazing people around the world and showing them that you can do anything you put your mind to? And things just happened, just like that."

Isles' eyes light up when he talks about speed, but he has more to his game. He also displays a tactical acumen for Sevens that many will have you believe he does not possess.

Isles says it is a "slap in the face" when people question the other aspects of his game, such as defence, but he wears with immense pride in the label of "fastest man in rugby".

"One thing I wanted to do, besides inspiring people, I wanted to be the fastest man in rugby," he continues. "It's like Usain Bolt being the fastest man in the world, [I'm] the fastest man in rugby. I just love being the fastest man in rugby, I just do. It's a confidence-boost thing, and it's something, a goal and a vision, that I had from the beginning."

Sprinter Warren Weir's decision to join the Jamaican Sevens program with an eye on the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 may threaten Isles' grip on his prized title. The Olympic 200m bronze medallist possesses a quicker official personal best for the 100m, but the American is not worried.

"It doesn't make me more determined because I have that fire inside of me," Isles says. "I know what my legs can do, and there's more to rugby than just being fast. [I'm] glad he wants to play. But you have to tackle, ruck, know how to read different pictures."

Isles is no stranger to working hard to hold onto a dream, either. Having played at the 2016 Rio Olympics with stitches in his knees, Isles suffered a series of injuries that culminated in a torn ACL and meniscus, and a lengthy spell on the sidelines.

Isles treated his rehabilitation like a full-time job. He had an hour-and-a-half drive to and from the centre where his recovery took shape, and he decorated the walls with a poster and wrote slogans on it to keep him focused. "Forgotten," read one. "He'll never be the same," sneered another. They helped to stoke the fire inside. On occasion, he allowed himself to watch YouTube clips of himself as a reminder of exactly what he could do.

"I looked at it as a project," he says of his recovery. "I wasn't messing around because I didn't want to be one of those people who was never the same."

The result?

Isles returned for the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2017-18 season opener in Dubai in December last year, and clocked a top speed of 23 miles per hour (37 km/h).

"I thought 'I got it, I'm good'," he recalls, and he would be proved right over the campaign as he topped the try charts with 49.

His return to fitness and form -- aided by the coaching of U.S. Sevens boss Mike Friday and chats with good friend Perry Baker -- has nurtured another dream within the sport's fastest player.

Isles would dearly love to win the Rugby World Cup Sevens this weekend, but it is the prospect of securing at least one gold medal at a different showpiece event that drives him.

Isles will forever be grateful to rugby, and he is keen to get more American kids into the sport through sprint coaching; it will be hard to contain his message if he achieves what he believes is possible at the next Olympics in Tokyo.

Isles was training with U.S. track stars Michael Tinsley, Natasha Hastings and Michael Rodgers when he made the decision to pick up an oval ball in 2012. At the time he told them he would see them in Rio.

That promise became a reality four years later, but not in the circumstances Isles had hoped. Despite qualifying for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track and Field trials in the 100m, with a time of 10.15 seconds, rugby commitments meant he was unable to attend.

Isles says the experience left him "a little heartbroken", but it has not dimmed his desire to double up in Tokyo. Isles is confident he will need his spikes as well as his rugby boots in Japan.

"I've not even trained for track really and I go out there and I run 10.1 -- twice," he says. "I'm beating people who that's all they do. So, I'm like 'dawg, I can do this'."

So, what's the objective for Tokyo?

"Gold medal," he exclaims. "Gold medal, that's the goal! That's what we're talking about.

"The next Olympics I really want a gold; the World Cup I want gold, too."

Having spent the past 21 years fighting to build the life that he wanted, it would take a brave person to wager against him making good on that promise.