U.S. Rugby Sevens center Ilona Maher, 26, skyrocketed to fame during the Tokyo Games where she gave fans a behind-the-scenes glimpse into Olympic village. The Burlington, Vermont native gets candid about the lows she experienced after the Tokyo Olympics, the criticism she’s received about body image, and whether or not any of the “tall, foreign, demigod looking athletes” she spotted were looking for a wife below.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I know you were a three-sport athlete growing up. How did you get into rugby and what drew you to the sport?
Ilona Maher: All my life I was playing sports because my dad really pushed us into it. I played basketball, field hockey, softball, and then by my senior year of high school, I didn’t really want to play softball anymore. My dad has played rugby for almost 40-plus years now. When I told him I didn’t want to play softball he said I had to do something. There was a local high school team that had a rugby club and so I went and played there. The sport fit my body like glove. It was like I went on the field and knew it. I understood [the sport] from the beginning and then progressed.
You talked about your dad’s involvement in the sport. How did that influence your decision to play and what was it like growing up with your dad playing rugby?
Maher: It’s kind of a big motivator to make your parents proud in anything. I studied nursing. My mom’s a nurse, I went into the medical field for her. My dad loves rugby. He still coaches and is a referee. In our discussions, we’re talking about plays I did, the laws of the Game. It’s really just a motivator to be able to give back all of the hard work they did for me.
You ended up playing at Quinnipiac, where you won the MA Sorensen Award for National Player of the Year, but you transferred after one season at Norwich University. What led you to Quinnipiac?
Maher: Norwich was a great start to my rugby journey. I really learned a lot and expanded there, but it just wasn’t a fit for me. During my time there we actually played Quinnipiac during the season and I think I scored like three tries in that game. I remember I emailed the coach and I was like, “hey, you know I’m that girl who used to wear the pink scrum cap, I scored three tries against you.” We got connected and chatted through all the NCAA processing.
They had a great nursing program, that was the main reason why I picked it because I didn’t want to give up [rugby or nursing]. I think if I was going to give up either it probably would have been rugby, because nursing would have provided more stability. I also have a lot of family in Connecticut. I went and toured it and just immediately really loved it and loved what I could do there and then made the decision to transfer once I got accepted.
How did your time at Quinnipiac shape you into the athlete and person you are today?
Maher: What was cool about that program was that it was treated like a very D1 NCAA program. We were up for 6:30 AM lifts. We had all our gear given to us, we had to match. It was very strict, honestly, maybe even stricter than the program I have now. But I think that was something I thrive in because that’s how I always grew up being coached.
With nursing, I would have to miss like two days a week to go do a 12-hour clinical shift. [Our coach] was very understanding and allowed us to thrive in many different areas. They understood that we were so much more than just rugby players.
You mentioned 12-hour clinicals; how were you able to balance nursing and rugby?
Maher: I wanted to do both so I made it my mission to do both. It wasn’t easy, but I also didn’t find that I had to sacrifice a lot. I worked very hard for it but I also really enjoyed the hard work aspect of it. I enjoyed going to the clinicals. I love doing things that keep my brain busy. If I put my mind to something and I want to do it, I’ll do it.