From D1 rugby star to viral Olympian: The journey of Ilona Maher

Melanie Careri, Executive Producer: Newscast

Only three years after graduating from Quinnipiac University, rugby star Ilona Maher became an Olympian and was titled “TikTok Queen” by the New York Post and other media organizations. She caught the eyes of people from all walks of life.

While playing on Quinnipiac’s women’s rugby team, Maher decided it was her mission to play for Team USA and eventually earn a spot in the Olympics. Maher spent her entire college career preparing for her shot in the Olympics.

Credit: Quinnipiac University

“I was in the weight room all day and trained two to three times a day, focused on studies, then got called up and have been training with the USA team for three years just to make it to the Olympics,” Maher said. “It was a whirlwind, but it was awesome.”

Before Maher started playing rugby at age 17, she played field hockey, basketball and softball. According to Maher, she and her teammates felt that playing other sports brought various skill sets to the rugby field.

“Those [sports] shaped me into the athlete I am today because you learn so many different skills from all those different sports,” Maher said. “Everything shapes you into a great rugby player.”

Maher says training is your whole life when you’re an Olympian. For D1 athletes need to have a balance between school work and training. However, Maher says transitioning from being a D1 athlete to an Olympian was a smooth process from playing on Quinnipiac’s rugby team.

“They [Quinnipiac’s Rugby Team] were on such a great program there that’s taken seriously, supported by the school which I think is so key, so it was really going from one great environment to the another one, so it was just effortless,” Maher said.

Quinnipiac’s women’s rugby coach Becky Carlson says she is proud of Maher’s accomplishments but is also not surprised as she expected her to succeed.

Credit: Times Union

“Ilona was and just is an absolute physical force of nature in terms of her strength and her desire to win and I think all of her goals combined for what she wanted was one of those things that you just knew when you were coaching, you had a really special athlete who had a fantastic supporting caste at the time that she was here,” Carlson said.

Maher’s transition from training for a D1 team to an Olympic team was an adjustment. As a college student, Maher would sometimes have to skip rugby practice to go to her nursing clinicals and always needed to find a way to prioritize both her rugby playing and school work.

Coach Carlson noticed the challenge Maher faced going out on the field while she was a nursing student and a D1 athlete with a predictable, successful rugby future ahead of her. She observed the high expectations spectators put on Maher.

“There was constant pressure for Lo [Ilona] to perform,” Carlson said. “When you’re 18 to 22 years old and you have people throwing the future out in front of your face telling you, ‘you’re gonna be this, you’re gonna be that, it’s overwhelming, but I think overwhelming is good work.”

Maher managed to roll with the punches and encourages young athletes who strive for a career in their sport to find a balance between their schoolwork, sport and social life.

“I’m so happy I got my nursing degree because it set me up,” Maher said. “Athletics is a very hard career to go into and it’s really not guaranteed, so get that degree for now and set yourself up. It’s going to take a lot of sacrifice and a lot of hard work, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have fun and you can’t be a person. It’s just all about balance and really timing that out.”

Coincidentally, before Maher ever imagined herself playing in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, she was an environmental ambassador during her senior year of high school between Tokyo and her home state Vermont. According to Maher, she was always drawn to Tokyo.

Credit: Ilona Maher Twitter

“I still want to go back to Japan whenever I can because I love it and they did such a good job with the Olympics,” Maher said.

Maher appreciates being able to play in the Tokyo Olympics. She says Tokyo did an amazing job regarding time management with great staff.

“It was weird because there were no fans or anything like that, but it was still such a special experience and not many people can say they went to an Olympics in a pandemic,” Maher said.

A majority of Maher’s experiences at the Tokyo Olympics were shown through TikTok, which is what helped propel her viral stardom. Maher did not expect to become as popular as she did. However, she decided to take advantage of her platform by showing people the human side of athletes, along with promoting rugby.

“I think people just loved the humor and unpretentiousness of my TikToks and I was giving the inside look of how with athletes, it’s not just, we work so hard and we’re Olympians, but we also love to have fun, we’re funny, and we’re also awkward and do all sorts of other things,” Maher said.

Maher said her teammates took her TikTok platform lightly at first. However, as Maher’s popularity progressed, her teammates realized its potential for inspiring young rugby players.

“They [Team USA teammates] saw, ‘oh wait this has some power there and we got people into rugby because of it’, so I think they love it because they get to go along with it and it’s not only helping me, but it’s also helping them as well, getting them out there,” Maher said.

Maher feels fortunate to have grown a strong connection with her Olympic teammates. She says her training and playing experience during the pandemic wouldn’t have been the same without them.

“You create such a bond with these individuals because you’re working so hard for a goal that you all have,” Maher said. “They’ve just become my sisters and closest friends.”

Becoming popular on TikTok and inspiring young girls and boys to play rugby has been “fun” for Maher. However, it took some time for her to see the influence she has on people.

“I didn’t really realize it because you’re in Tokyo and there’s no fans or whatever so all you see is what’s on social media about people being into you and it was really my mom, my sisters and everyone else telling me back home the great impact I had,” Maher said.

Coach Carlson has always been amazed by Maher and her talents. She never doubted Maher would become successful in rugby.

“I’m very proud of her,” Carlson said. “There were people in this country and throughout the world who had never probably even heard of USA Women’s Rugby or their participation in the Olympics until Ilona Maher put that stamp on exposing the human side of the team and getting on TikTok,” Maher said. “There’s parallels between what Lo’s visibility did for rugby during the Tokyo Olympics and also what it did for Women’s NCAA Rugby as a sport and then also what it did for women’s rugby at Quinnipiac.”

Despite the Tokyo Olympics being different this year due to COVID-19, Maher is thrilled she was able to compete and she will never forget the memories she made.

“It’s so wild because you prepare so long for this one moment and anything can happen,” Maher said. “It’s never the same and it was wild because there were no fans and what not, so it was different and I think it was really the preparing that was special about it. The Olympics were so short, so small, but it was the preparing and getting close to my team that was so important.”