“Perhaps one of the best pieces of advice my dad ever gave me was ‘Don’t tone it down,’” says Ilona Mahar, 24, one of the seven starters in the Olympic Women’s USA Sevens rugby team by phone from Tokyo, 10 days before the Olympics. At 5’10” tall, lean, muscular and weighing close to 200 lbs, Mahar is an unapologetically powerful force to contend with. “When I was in high school, I was a softball pitcher and we were playing a parks & recs game and one of the dads yelled out ‘Hey, slow it down,’. My dad was like, ‘no, this is fast-pitch softball, don’t slow it down. Later, he told me ‘never tone it down for anyone.’ He taught me to never hold back.”
And that’s the motto that has taken Mahar from an all-round high school athlete who played basketball, field hockey and softball at Burlington High School to one of the world’s top rugby players and someone who will be competing in the new Premier Rugby Sevens league, to be televised on Fox Sports this fall. It is the first such series where women and men rugby players will have equal pay. “I look at it and hope for it to be something like women’s soccer,” says Maher, who has been playing professionally since 2018. Rugby only returned as an Olympic sport in 2016 and this year is only the second time U.S. women have had a chance to compete at the Games.
Though Ilona’s father, Michael Maher, had played rugby, coached it and been a referee for more than 30 years, Ilona hadn’t originally planned to play in college. “I was actually planning on going to UVM,” she says. “But then a coach at Norwich University who knows my dad saw me playing a game and said ‘You should really come to Norwich and play rugby.’” She had been at Norwich for less than a year when the coach from the rugby powerhouse Quinnipiac College, saw her play. Quinnipiac also had an excellent nursing program, an area of study that Ilona was interested in. She transferred and during her time there, the Bobcats made it to three national championships. Ilona was named an All-American three times and earned the Sorensen Award for the top collegiate player 0f 2017.
After graduating, going pro was an easy step and she made the U.S. National Team in 2018, competing in her first international meet, the HSBC World Sevens series in Paris. She then went on to help the team place second in the 2018-19 World Rugby Sevens series, earning them a spot at the 2020 Tokyo Games.
As a pro, Ilona has spent most of her time practicing with her teammates at their base in San Diego. But when Covid-19 hit she moved home to Burlington with her parents, Charlie and Meineke. “I think the thing that save me then was working out with Joey Besl at the Premier Strength and Performance gym in South Burlington. Just having the camaraderie and some other serious athletes around me was motivating.”
As for working out with her team, the hardest workout she remembers was what she calls “the House of Pain.” “The coach would be blowing the whistle and have us running as fast as we could back and forth on the line with no end in sight,” she remembers. “It was tough but those are the practices that really bond you with your team.”
When she’s not training or playing, Ilona spends a lot of her free time making hilarious TikTok videos with her teammates or modeling. Most videos are spontaneous but “I do have some comedy routines,” she admits. As of late June, she had more than 170,000 TikTok followers.
Perhaps Ilona’s greatest disappointment about the Tokyo Olympics was that her family couldn’t be there to watch. “If you ask me what my best game or moment competing has been I’d have to say that it’s anytime my family has been there cheering for me. Rugby has actually been a great way to bond with my dad. I still call him up and ask him about rules and plays. I love that I can,” she says.
Ilona’s family was cheering for her from afar as Team USA won their first three games. Then came a match against Great Britain. The British racked up 21 points to the U.S.’s 12, knocking them out of the quarter finals. Ilona scored two goals to help beat China yet again yet in the next match, the U.S. lost to Australia and ended up in sixth overall.
After the loss, Ilona posted a tearful, heartfelt TikTok post saying, “Thank you for all the support. It was a really tough loss for me personally. I feel like it’s my fault but thank all of you for tuning into women’s rugby.
“It’s been a heartbreak and I’ve not gone through that heartbreak before and it was nice to be able to show my fans on TikTok my authentic self and that this is what we go through,” she told Access Hollywood after the game.
But, if she won anything, Ilona Maher won a new following for women’s rugby and has become a breakout social media star.
If you missed Ilona playing in Tokyo, or scoring in the match against Japan that put her team into the quarter-finals, watch for her in the Premier Rugby Sevens series that will be televised from Memphis, Tenn., on October 9.