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Rugby's viral star talks YouTube, Olympics

Thanks to blazing speed and a viral YouTube video, Carlin Isles has become a rising star in rugby. Matt Roberts/Getty Images

Carlin Isles can run 100 meters in 10.13 seconds.

Had he been running in this year’s London Olympics, he would have been in the semifinals alongside monsieurs Bolt and Blake.

Isles isn't an Olympic sprinter. But that’s not to say the 23-year-old speedster doesn’t want to be an Olympian, because in 2016 Isles hopes to be taking Rio de Janeiro by storm as the fastest rugby player on Earth.

For anyone not aware of who Carlin Isles is, here’s a quick recap: Track star and former running back at Ashland University in Ohio (Division II) decides to give rugby union a shot after stumbling across it online.

Six months after calling USA Rugby for a tryout, the rugby neophyte is an instant hit in his new sport. A fan uploads a highlight video of Isles tearing it up at a tournament in Dubai to YouTube.

After just a week the video was viewed 2.5 million times.

“It’s amazing and a real blessing,” Isles explains. “I was in Dubai waiting to come home when a guy hit me up on YouTube telling me he’d made a compilation of me and hoped that I liked it.

“When I clicked on it, it had 22,000 hits. The next time it was close to 500,000. Then it went past a million and people started messaging me from all around the world and it went crazy. It was the greatest feeling. My mom and dad said everyone back home was talking about it.”

After spending his football life encased in pads, rugby was quite the step up for Isles, especially when it came to the confusing aspects of the game.

“I knew that you had to pass it behind you and that you had to run a lot,” laughs Isles, who broke Ashland’s record for kick returns with 174 yards in one game. “But I did not understand the rules at all and when I got to the USA team I still did not know all of them.”

He still has yet to play a single second of the most iconic form of the game -- rugby fifteens, where 30 men in various sizes of XXL crash into each other rather gracefully -- but Isles has so far excelled at rugby sevens, a shorter and faster version, with less than half the number of players but more room for speed merchants to flourish.

“I’m going to be a little nervous [playing fifteens], because those guys are way, way bigger than the guys who play on sevens. I’ve seen some of those guys on TV and some of them are straight animals -- some of them are as big as in the NFL, and I’m like ‘Jeez!’”

So what does Isles have to say to the people who think an upstart like him won't survive long in a game as brutal as rugby?

“I like it, because they don’t know what I can do. If you put me in fifteens, then I’m used to taking hits from players who are bigger than in rugby so it’s not like I can’t take a hit. The guys who play fifteens are not quite as fast as on sevens, and they don’t usually run as much. In any one-on-one situation I’m going to beat you.”

Isles is not the first to make the daunting switch from the track to a contact sport. Renaldo Nehemiah, the former 110-meter hurdles record-holder, tried it briefly, playing wide receiver with mixed results for the San Francisco 49ers from 1982-1984.

But Isles’ plan is to follow in the footsteps of Miles Craigwell, the Brown University linebacker and Miami Dolphins safety who took up rugby as a means to feed his itch for delivering hits.

And with rugby sevens making its debut at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, Isles sees the perfect platform for his ever-growing skills.

“I want to still do track still a little, especially indoors,” Isles said. “But I want to get better at rugby and be the best rugby player and winger I can be in sevens or fifteens. I want to help the team out and make it to the Olympics.”

The sevens tournament circuit is already firmly established on the rugby calendar. The USA is currently ranked a respectable 12th in the world, above traditional powers such as England and Scotland. One might assume that with four more years of development for Isles, Team USA might have a legit shot in Rio.

When you have one of the fastest athletes on Earth on your team, the future certainly looks bright.