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Hometown Hopefuls: Ilona Maher on the post-Olympic blues and body image

Maher details importance of body positivity
USA Rugby's Ilona Maher sits down with Mary Omatiga to explain why she decided to be speak publicly about body image insecurities and the importance behind spreading body positivity for younger women.

Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer 2024.

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.

After college, I know you said you felt like you still had more to give to the sport. Did you ever think you’d be an Olympian?

Maher: It really never crossed my mind. I think for a lot of female athletes, you don’t ever think that. You don’t play sports to be professional because it’s just not a path you can go on. I think it was always just in the back of my mind--maybe I can go to the Olympics or play professionally. When I was young, and in some cases now, it would be almost dumb as a woman to think, “I’ll be a professional athlete” because it’s so hard for us in this landscape.

It’s not like it’s the NFL or MLB, where there’s so many teams. There’s not a lot of availability and opportunity for that. I always had it in the back my head, but I didn’t get my hopes up. As I started to play more, I started to see that people were taking notice of me, and I thought maybe this is possible. I didn’t say it to anybody but I was like okay, I want to go to the Olympics and then just kept working and doing little things to get there.

Take me back to the Tokyo Games. You went viral on TikTok for really giving people a behind-the-scenes look into the Olympics and just being hilarious and very relatable, but what do you remember most from your experience?

Maher: I remember how hard it was after, honestly. It’s so interesting that you spend your whole life or like four years just training for this event. It’s all you think about. Everyone puts so much pressure on the Olympics, right? It’s the biggest event in the world. Then you play three days, six games, and it’s done. You go home and you’re like, okay, so now I have to wait another four years to play this again--to maybe redeem myself?

How short it was kind of made me think okay, you really need to start staying present in every moment. Everything in between the Olympics, every tournament I go to between the Olympics, and then when I get there, not put as much pressure as I did on it.

I watched a TED talk that you recently did and you said that the Olympic Games are filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. We’ve all seen the highs. But can you talk a little bit more in depth about those lows and how you dealt with them?

Maher: Yeah, there’s a great documentary that Michael Phelps is in called “The Weight of Gold.” There’s something called the post-Olympic blues. Here you are on the most amazing stage in the world. So much is expected of you. You’ve trained your whole life for this. If you don’t win a medal--even if you do win a medal-- you’re done and then you come crashing down. That was very tough.

I think a lot of Olympians feel that way because you put your whole body on the line for this one moment and then it’s over. Trying to deal with that can be very tough. I had a hard time dealing with it, but I worked through it with my family, my sports psych, and with my teammates.

How would you sum up your Olympic experience in one word and why?

Maher: Transformational, because I think it really did transform my life. I became the “Olympic Tik-Toker” and people took notice of not only me but of my sport. My main goal going into it to was to get more eyes on my sport. People say you can go into the Olympics and come out a completely different person. I didn’t come out as a different person but I gained so many followers, I gained some more notoriety. It definitely transformed myself, even my career, how I make money now and my influence.

What did having the opportunity to represent Vermont in Tokyo mean to you? What was it like when you came home?

Maher: That was just so cool. Vermont’s not known for our athletic prowess. We’re not known to have built the best even though we do have some of the best from our state. But I love Vermont. I love where I grew up and the people there. So that was just awesome to represent. I was one of only two Vermonters at the Olympics. The other one was a long distance runner (Elle Purrier). When I did get home, I’d be on the street downtown and someone would say “Oh, are you the Olympian?” It just means the world because I love Vermont, and I’m so proud to represent it.

For the people that aren’t from there, how would you describe Burlington, Vermont and what makes it feel like home?

Maher: When I think Burlington, Vermont I think of farmer’s markets. I think of walks in the fresh air. I think of the beautiful lake we have. I just think there’s more of a slowness to it, people are not in a rush to get anywhere. A love for good food, good drinks. It’s just a feeling of a home for me and of welcome.

Switching gears – you broke your ankle this year. What happened, how are you feeling, and what has the recovery process been like?

Maher: I broke my ankle just playing touch rugby. It wasn’t even like it was a contact scrimmage. Somebody came into me and I fell weirdly on it and I broke my fibula and then displaced the ankle bones. I had to get a nail in my fibula and I have a couple metal pieces keeping my ankle together. It’s been tough but injury is a part of sports and a part of life as well. I don’t just attribute that to rugby because I think there’s so many ways you can hurt yourself.

I’m now walking on it. I’m blessed with having all full time trainers, physical therapists, athletic trainers, and massage therapists that I can go to every day so my recovery has been really good. Our season is done now, and my team has qualified for the 2024 Paris Olympics so I don’t have to worry about that. I can just focus on getting better for the Olympics.

Speaking of that qualification, you watched that from home. What were the emotions you were experiencing in that moment?

Maher: My main goal this season was to qualify. It kept me up at night, because to me, qualifying wasn’t just for myself and my team now, it’s for all the future players who come in. A lot of our funding depends on qualifying so it didn’t feel like it was just for me, it felt like it was for others. It was so stressful but we just stuck to the plan and really put ourselves in a great position this season to qualify. I was sad to see it [from home] but I’m so happy that we just qualified because now it means we can focus on other things.

If you make that Olympic roster, what are you looking forward to the most in Paris?

Maher: Hopefully we get our families there. That was something that was different in Tokyo. It was an empty, Opening Ceremony. It was an empty stadium and you walk out you’re just kind of waving to nobody. In our stands for the Games, it was silent. I’m excited for my family to experience an Olympics and to be there cheering for me.

You said before every game you write in your journal “Do Your Job.” What is your job and how would you describe your role on the team?

Maher: For me “do your job” just means do what your team needs from you. If my team needs to me to make a bunch of tackles and not score anything, that’s my job. If my team needs me to get meters forward and drive my legs, that’s what my job is.

I think for me, I got caught up one tournament because I was the star and I scored all these tries my first tournament and then it caught up to me in the next one when I thought I had to be that star again. If you can just do the little things that your teammates need, you’ll be successful.

Switching gears – I want to talk about body image. You exude so much confidence, but I saw a heartbreaking video you posted on TikTok a few months ago where you were in tears talking about the subject. Can you talk about some of the criticism you’ve received and how you deal with it?

Maher: I think like many muscular, broad women, we’re told all our lives that being a woman means being tiny, petite, and pretty, but for me, that’s just not who I am. That’s never who I am. I’ll never be that tiny, petite woman, I’ll be this big, muscular woman. It’s something that I’m really passionate about, because I don’t feel like I’m doing this body positivity really for myself but for the other young girls. Even my high school self would have really loved to see somebody like this, praising their body, showing them what they can do. It’s for other young girls who are constantly being called masculine because they’re strong, because they like being strong. By helping others, it’s helping me in a way to really accept it, because this is who I am and it’s not going to change. My body has done literally so much for me. It’s gotten me to the Olympics and made me one of the best Rugby Sevens players in the world. The fact that I still criticize it’s just like why would you do it? It’s a balance of appreciating and loving your body.

You’ve dealt with this really from an early age. Someone telling you to throw “polite passes” during a game and even having someone’s dad—a grown man—tell you as an elementary student to “slow your pitches down because no one could hit it.” Can you take me back to that day and describe what you were feeling?

Maher: I think a lot of times girls are raised to maybe tone it down to make others feel comfortable and to make it easier for others around them. I’ve always been very strong and powerful. In elementary school, I was pitching a fast-pitch softball game and none of the girls could hit it on the other team. The father of one of the players comes out and yells, “hey, tell her to slow down so the other girls can hit it.”

My dad being the man he was, was like, “No, this is a fast-pitch league, she’s going to pitch fast and these girls need to be able to hit it.” Then he took out the rulebook. Having people around me like my dad and [others] who’ve told me to never tone it down has allowed me to progress into who I am today. If I can tell others to not tone it down, maybe it’ll have the same kind of pyramid effect.

What do you say to the people that tell you to “tone it down” and what advice do you have for other people who’ve been told that they’re “too much”?

Maher: I think the world would be very boring place if we were all the same. If we were all neutral and didn’t try to express ourselves and be “a lot.” I like to think I’m making the world a pretty interesting place by being that way.

It isn’t always easy and I think having a good support system around you that’s telling you, “No, this is who you are. Keep doing it. Don’t tone it down” — I love it. It’s great to find it from within but sometimes you do need a little bit of outside help.

What does “beast, beauty, and brains” mean to you?

Maher: As athletes we’re put in boxes sometimes. People will say “she’s a rugby player, or she’s a nurse. That’s what she is.” But to me, I like to think of myself more as a multifaceted person. I’m a beast on the field but then I can also be very beautiful and I love wearing makeup. I also think of myself as smart. We can be so much. We’re not just one thing, we can be anything we want to be. Even though I play a very hard hitting sport that’s considered “a man’s sport,” I could still be feminine and beautiful.

How has rugby changed your life, specifically with how you feel about yourself?

Maher: Rugby has showed me that my body is not just something to be looked at. It has a purpose. It can run hard and tackle. It’s given me a new appreciation for what my body can and do what my muscles can do. I think [the sport] can do it for a lot of other women too--to show them that your body is so much more than just a thing to be criticized and viewed.


Ireland’s Beibhinn Parsons (2nd L) tackles USA’s Ilona Maher (R) during the World Rugby Women’s Sevens series match between Ireland and the United States at the Allianz Stadium in Sydney on January 29, 2023. - -- IMAGE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE -- (Photo by JEREMY NG / AFP) / -- IMAGE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE -- (Photo by JEREMY NG/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

2023 Sydney Sevens - Day 2

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 28: Ilona Maher of USA is tackled during the 2023 Sydney Sevens match between Great Britain and the United States at Allianz Stadium on January 28, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Getty Images


TOPSHOT - Ireland’s Lucy Mulhall (L) tackles USA’s Ilona Maher during the World Rugby Women’s Sevens series match between Ireland and the United States at the Allianz Stadium in Sydney on January 29, 2023. - -- IMAGE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE -- (Photo by JEREMY NG / AFP) / -- IMAGE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE -- (Photo by JEREMY NG/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

I love that you have this passion for growing the game. What do you want people to know about women’s rugby?

Maher: What you see on the pitch is just such a small part of what rugby can actually do for your life. The social network and community it can give you, the feelings about your body and the acceptance of any body size, it can make you feel like there’s a place for you. Playing the game is such a small part of what rugby is.

You just said “there’s a place for you.” Do you think that there is enough representation for women within the sport of rugby? If not, what do you think needs to be done and what would you like to see?

Maher: There’s definitely more room for representation. On the sevens side we don’t have as many body sizes, for sure. The 15’s side has a lot of that. I think there can be more representation, especially in the U.S. of people of color. We have a couple on our team but it’s not showing the whole population. What I want from our team is to really show a representation of what America is.

If we can get more girls into it and get rugby all over the country--not just in these small pockets--we have an opportunity. Anybody can really love the sport, and anyone can excel in the sport. I do think we have a long way to go. I have such amazing teammates who are being role models for their communities as well, just like I am. I’m really proud of what my teammates and I are doing to get the sport out there.

We talked earlier on about how rugby is this family affair. Tell me about your relationship with your Dad and how the sport brought you closer together.

Maher: I’m constantly calling him up and asking him questions about what happens on the field. He knows so much. He loves it, he breathes it, he reads all the [rule] books. Whenever I’m home I’ll go to his club rugby games. I love meeting the guys and I think he gets to show me off me like “look at my daughter, she’s an Olympian and plays rugby, this sport I grew up loving.” It’s been really cool. It’s also given my parents more of a reason to travel and to get out to try other things.

Your mom is a nurse. You said you went into that field because of her. What does she mean to you and how did she influence your decision?

Maher: My mom was one of the most hardworking people I know doing these long 12-hour shifts. I remember her coming home and being so tired telling me about how she birthed a baby that day. She worked in the ER and was always able to see all sorts of patients so that was something that really interested me. She has a way of connecting with people and helping people. That’s something that I really wanted to do. She’s helped guide me on the nursing path and though I haven’t done it, I’m so thankful that I did study nursing. It instilled a work ethic in me and my mom is someone I really look up to.

You recently got your MBA as well. What other career goals do you have and what do you hope to do after rugby?

Maher: It’s interesting, because I worked four years for a nursing degree, two to three years for my MBA and I’m like what am I even going to use these degrees for? Even when I’m done playing, I would love to still do what I can to spread the game, whether that’s being in media or a commentator.

Alright it’s time for a speed round. Finish this sentence... I’m not ready for game day without...

Maher: A good meal the night before.

I know you’re a coffee lover. What’s your go-to coffee order at Starbucks?

Maher: I love their cold brews with the cream on top.

If rugby had walk-up songs, what would yours be?

Maher: “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” by Shania Twain

You’re singing karaoke for your life. What song are you picking?

Maher: “Goodbye Earl” by The Chicks.

If you could switch places with any Olympic athlete for a day, who would it be and why?

Maher: Serena Williams because she’s retired so hopefully she’s just chilling right now. I’d like to just chill and be an icon.

Who’s been your biggest fan-girl follow? Any celebrities or athletes that followed you on social media that you were excited about?

Maher: Hank Green was a big supporter during the Olympics. He does funny explanation videos on Tiktok and he just loved it. He loved and supported what I was doing so that was so cool to see.

Visit for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer 2024.