Photo: Mike Lee / KLC fotos for World Rugby
In mid-November, USA Rugby announced the retirement of Ryan Carlyle, one of the longest-serving 7s Eagles on the team at that time. The New York native had moved to southern California shortly after earning her first 7s cap in March 2011 (Hong Kong) and from there worked her way into full-time resident status, back-to-back Rugby World Cup 7s tournaments and the Olympics. Carlyle’s been in it – and then suddenly she wasn’t, and the shock is rippling through her entire life.
“I did not retire. I got cut and was told to tell everyone I retired,” Carlyle began. “Actually they just went ahead and publicly announced my ‘retirement’ on my behalf. It was one of the most hurtful, identity-robbing moments of my life. I have very little understanding of what contributed to this. I was devastated when I found out and I am devastated every morning I wake up not going to practice.”
Betrayal lingers, because there’s nothing easy about being a 7s resident. Carlyle has worked under four different head coaches while at Chula Vista. The team’s built their own lockers, trained without kit, and quietly endured any hardship or inequality.
“Unfortunately, we never knew of anything else,” Carlyle confessed.
Some things have changed – today, the team has multiple jerseys for each day; the full-time squad has expanded to 24 – but the players learn how to cope so they can stay focused.
“As players we learned to control what we can and ride with what we can’t,” she continued. “One thing that always made management transition easier was the culture of the team. As professional athletes, we know what’s expected of us, we know what our job is, and we take both the team and our personal contributions seriously. Throughout all four head coach transitions, the team and the players never stopped working and never stopped working for each other. The coaches may have changed a ‘game plan’ or a training schedule or added new drills, but in the end we were just playing rugby.”
The team takes care of itself, but it took years for Carlyle to make it into the player core. Carlyle moved to San Diego on her own dime and spent nearly two years training alongside the residents, eventually landing a contract in 2013.
Photo: Mike Lee / KLC fotos for World Rugby
“My biggest struggle was staying in a full-time training environment for almost 10 years,” Carlyle reflected on her career. “At the very beginning I was excited and willing and able to do anything it took to be on the team. But then I got invested and committed to my goals and attached to the team. My expectations for myself got too high too soon and I started panicking and fearing failure. I did not start consistently making rosters until 2014 so for three years, I was working uphill chasing girls who were more experienced and dreams that seemed impossible.”
Carlyle’s hard work was rewarded. She traveled around the world, experienced the peak of athletic competition, has several “firsts” on her rugby resume, and knows all the special, intimate comforts that is being on a team.
“My favorite part of traveling with a team is just being with the team. It’s like a week-long sleepover with some of your closest friends. Things get weird, things get funny – or we think so – things get serious. We stay up late when we aren’t supposed to, we eat candy when the staff isn’t looking, we share secrets, we play games, we instantly regress to being middle school-aged girls at their first sleepover. And then wake up every morning ready to do work! I always come home from traveling with the team feeling closer to my teammates.”
The rugby culture that left the biggest impression on Carlyle? Fiji.
“I was most amazed by how little they have and yet how proud of it all they are and how willing to share it all,” Carlyle recalled the 2015 Serevi Selects tour with Richie Walker. “We visited many of the local villages, learned about their schools, exchanged gifts, learned how to braid and weave baskets, explored beaches and cliffs, and of course played touch. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.”
Today, Carlyle is far away from Fiji, mentally. The abrupt end to her resident status, and how it was handled, is touching every edge of Carlyle’s life. There’s the immediate – the eagerness to train, especially considering her career didn’t end with an injury – to paying the bills and questions of purpose.
“So many people seem to fear or hate the idea of being bound by a single goal and being told where to be, and when and what to do, and how fast to do them, all the while prioritizing that goal and your physical fitness above everything else. That’s basically an Olympian’s life,” Carlyle explained. “The regime was my comfort zone. Anything outside of that was scary to me. And now here I am. It’s dark, it’s ominous, it’s scary, it’s lonely, and it’s full of possibilities I can’t even see yet.”
In the past, Carlyle could weather those struggles within the team and draw from that strength. But that relationship has changed.
“Everything I have done for the past decade has been because of and for rugby. What I eat, what I don’t eat, what I drink, what I don’t drink, what I read, what I watched, who I socialized with, who I avoided, where I lived, what time I woke up, what time I went to bed – everything,” Carlyle asserted. “When rugby was taken away from me, I was immediately lost. I didn’t know who I was or what my purpose was anymore. I spend more time dwelling on what I did wrong or why I got cut than what I was going to do next. I wake up crying. I feel embarrassed. The girls and teammates I once called my best friends, I don’t even talk to anymore. I avoid the ones that do reach out because I’m anxious about feeling inferior to them.”
Carlyle is unemployed. Prior to her “retirement,” she was on the board of the United States Rugby Players Associations, but Carlyle indicated that she lost her spot once she was no longer a member of the team.
“I don’t have a manager or an agent and no funds for a lawyer, so I never argued the situation,” the 29-year-old explained. “Unfortunately that’s the case for a lot of the girls in the program. Very few of us can afford to defend ourselves, and rely on [USA Rugby] for income and the ability to survive.”
During this challenging time, Carlyle has reflected on her values. She knows she loves being part of a team, helping others, being physically active, challenged, and always learning. This process has helped Carlyle consider “next steps,” and she’s enrolled at EMT school for professional opportunities in Emergency Medicine and Firefighting. She’s been hitting the slopes, attending leadership and coaching courses, mentoring young athletes, volunteering with the local Wheelchair Rugby team, the Challenged Athletes Foundation and the Athletes for Hope – and loving it.
But there’s still a wound, and Carlyle’s not looking to replace rugby just yet.
“I have no idea what I want to do. I feel angry at rugby and USA Rugby still. It’s left a bad taste in my mouth and has prevented me from playing or coaching since,” Carlyle closed. “I’m learning a lot about what I wish I knew years ago in terms of preparing for retirement, mentally and financially, insurance, and finding a job. I’m learning to ask for help. And I’m learning there’s a lot more to me than just rugby. I think I will love that.”