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Burlington Olympian Ilona Maher shines as rugby, social media superstar


Team USA women’s rugby player Ilona Maher of Burlington, Vt. was on the phone with her dad Saturday morning after her team finished sixth in the Olympics. 

“Ilona is talking things through with her dad right now,” her mom told me via her Instagram messaging app, “but you can absolutely call us about our Olympian (smiley face with star eyes inserted.)

Maher was struggling after her team lost in the quarterfinals to Great Britain in the Olympics on Friday and lost the fifth-place match against Australia on Saturday. 

CHOFU, JAPAN – JULY 29: Ilona Maher of Team United States prepares to lead her team out onto the field for the Women’s pool C match between Team United States and Team Japan during the Rugby Sevens on day six of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Stadium on July 29, 2021 in Chofu, Tokyo, Japan.

Dan Mullan/Getty

The realization of coming home without a medal was a stinging setback during a whirlwind of international recognition for the star athlete who became a TikTok sensation during the pandemic and Olympics.

“She obviously was extremely disappointed,” said her dad, Michael Maher. “They ran into a team (Great Britain) that they’ve beaten five times in a row, and that team was just better than them that day.” 

Just as she and her teammates lay it all out on a field where the rules for men and women in a full-contact sport are the same, Maher went on social media to tell her fans how hard it was to lose on the world’s biggest stage.

“That was a really tough loss for me personally,” she said in a TikTok video. “I felt like it was my fault, and I’m feeling a lot of emotions right now. I really want to thank all of you for watching and getting up and checking it out. It’s such an amazing sport, and all the teams out there are so amazing.  We deserve you guys tuning in and checking us out because we work so hard. I’m so proud of my team.” 

In only the second edition of rugby sevens at the Olympics, Maher and her teammates can hold their heads high. Thanks to Maher, a new generation of rugby fans has emerged. 

“I love the fact that she’s an incredible representative for women,” said her mom, Mieneke Maher. “Her body positivity, her beauty. Beast, beauty, brains I believe her hashtag is — which is really wonderful.”

Maher, 5-foot-10 and 200-pounds, is following in both her mom’s and dad’s footsteps. Ilona Maher graduated with a nursing degree from Quinnipiac and is a registered nurse in Burlington, working in both the emergency department and labor and delivery. 

“She has many years to be a nurse, but only a select number of years to be an Olympian and a professional athlete, so that’s what she is focused on now,” said her mom, who was born in the Netherlands and moved to the U.S. when she was 16.

Mieneke Maher didn’t have the opportunities to play sports when she was young. She encourages her Olympian to continue to follow her dreams. 

Ilona Maher’s dad is the rugby influence. He played at St. Michael’s (Vt.) College and the Burlington Rugby Football Club in the mid-1980s. He also was a rugby referee for many years.

“We used to play the Albany Knicks,” he said. “I remember specifically one game where we played them, and the other part of their club played a visiting Dutch side. So there were all these guys walking around with wooden shoes and orange shorts. It was quite a fun party afterward.”

Ilona Maher played softball, field hockey and basketball in high school, her parents said, and she took up rugby at age 17. She no longer wanted to play softball, but her parents insisted on her choosing another sport. Soon after she started playing club rugby, college coaches came calling. 


She found her way to Quinnipiac to play rugby and join the university’s renowned, tough nursing program. Maher led Quinnipiac to three championships in the National Intercollegiate Rugby Association and earned All-America status all three years.  She was named the nation’s top collegiate rugby player in her junior season in 2017.

Her playing success combined with her TikTok and Instragram numbers are a result of the 26-year-old spending sometimes six hours a day creating social media. She’s been featured in profiles on the Peacock (NBC) app, Time.com, the New York Times, Yahoo.com and, of course, her hometown newspaper, the Burlington Free Press. 

The Free Press noted on July 29 she had “Over 500,000 followers and 16.5 million likes on the social media app TikTok.” By Sunday morning, she had reached 666,000 followers and 21.7 million likes.

Her TikTok’s are self-deprecating and honest: “I don’t love my body all the time, but I’ve grown to appreciate it. I get very mad when I make mistakes. I’m self-conscious that my personality may be too much for some people.”

And she has a knack for comedy, often wearing glasses and a red, white and blue USA bucket hat and bathrobe. Her take on getting the courage to flirt with Romanian volleyball players in the Olympic dining hall is classic. She and her teammates testing out the athletes’ cardboard beds gained 3.5 million views.

She perfected the art of short video in a small hotel room in the early spring when Team USA rugby went to Spain for a tournament and the event dissolved into a “big Covid mess,” her mom said. 

“They were prisoners in a Spanish hotel for three weeks,” her dad said. 

“She truly has a gift for it,” said Mieneke Maher of her TikTok takes.

She landed on users’ FYP (For You Page), and the rest is history, or better yet, “herstory.”

Her Instagram promotes her team, the sport of rugby, athletic gear and other products. And although she gets free gear and some pay from the Olympic Committee for an Oreo commercial, Maher has yet to monetize her newfound fame, her dad said.

“Maybe some day in the future, we’ll see,” he said, noting she won a TikTok “like” contest with a rugby player on the men’s USA team. “What that showed is she is really engaging with people.” 

@ilonamaher

##stitch with @ilonamaher winner winner chicken dinner ##beastbeautybrains ##tokyo2020 ##usarugby ##tokyoolympics ##teamusa ##olympictiktok ##winner

♬ original sound – Ilona Maher

“She got a lot of eyeballs onto rugby, and that’s good” her dad said. “It’s going to grow the game, and a lot of young girls are going to be looking to join a rugby team.” 

Maher told reporter Alex Abrami of the Free Press that what she learned from other sports provided the experience she needed for success in rugby.

“I picked up all these different skills — field awareness, hand-eye coordination,” Maher said. “When it came to rugby, I don’t know why it clicked — maybe it was something in my blood and being exposed to rugby my whole life.”

On Thursday, her family and friends gathered at Elks Club in Burlington to root on their hometown hero. Childhood friends from her school days at Burlington High School, teammates from her rugby club, former teachers and coaches and Maher family friends sported red, white and blue during a thrilling comeback opening win over China. Her mom organized the event. 

In the next game, when she scored in the 17-7 victory against Japan, commentator and former U.S. women’s national rugby player Phaidra Knight praised the young star: “Ilona Maher, blowing it up on the pitch, and on TikTok.” 

For her parents, it was enjoyable to share the moment with friends and family. But when the team lost, the desire to be by her side in Toyko really set in.

“As long as the athletes were able to go that was the most important thing. It would have been nice to be able to be there right now, to be able to comfort her and stand by her. That’s the only thing that’s tough right now, when your child is upset and you can’t be there for them,” she said. “Thank goodness we’ve been able to FaceTime.” 

Ilona will be back home to Vermont sometime this month as her next steps for USA Rugby are being determined. Look for her to continue to play on an international level and travel the world playing the sport she loves. 

And no doubt she will be taking all her fans along for the journey via @ilonamaher. 

Joyceb10bassett@gmail.com • @joyceb10bassett • https://blog.timesunion.com/allin

#womenworthwatching

• Peacock’s replays have been a lifesaver to solve my FOMO on Olympic game coverage. And the special programming “On Her Turf at the Olympics” offers in-depth discussions of issues facing women athletes along with athlete profiles. 
• This column is sponsored by Times Union Women@Work, the Capital Region’s network of business and professional women. Join today at: https://womenatworkny.com



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