Olympian, Vermonter & TikToker Ilona Maher On Using Social Media To Promote Women's Rugby
Ilona Maher graduated from Burlington High School in 2018. This summer she competed in the Toyko Olympics for team USA on the women's rugby sevens team. She has more than 800,000 followers on TikTok and used her platform to get people excited about women's rugby.
VPR's Connor Cyrus spoke with Ilona Maher to discuss how she sees social media helping the sport. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Connor Cyrus: You're an Olympian, a TikTok star, a registered nurse, a rugger. How do you describe yourself?
Ilona Maher: I would describe myself as somebody who I think works very hard, but also knows how to enjoy the moment and have fun.
What's your relationship to Vermont?
I was born right up on the hill there, what is now UVM Medical Center, I call it Fletcher Allen. That's how you know I'm an O.G.. I went to St. Joe's Catholic School, which is right there in the Old North End, for a little bit. And then I went to Burlington High School. I call myself a Burlingtonian for sure.
I think people forget that, people from this little state of Vermont can do really big things. How do you use your Vermont experience to keep you moving forward, and help you get to the Olympics and to be the successful person that you are today?
Well, I think I use it because it's like, everyone does doubt Vermonters, and they do doubt Vermont athletes especially. But I think it really doesn't matter where you're from, great athletes can come anywhere. So for me, just like, showing my state and even the country, what our small state is capable of. We have, you know, some great athletes already, have come out of here.
Yeah, I feel like you made us very proud during this Olympic session. What was that experience like for you?
It was wild, you know, it's an experience you'll never forget. It's hard to replicate. It was insane to be in a village with all sorts of world-class athletes. And just to be playing for your country, like, you know, wearing that Team USA, is so special.
When we talk about the Olympics, I mean, so much happened. What was a memorable moment for you during that?
It was just really, yeah, hanging out in the village with my team and like, getting to meet other athletes, I think was so special.
TikTok was a big part of your Olympic experience. I mean, obviously, not the whole thing. What was that experience like for you?
Really, I was just making them to have fun. To kind of connect my team. I thought about a couple ways that we can have some fun there.
And really, I was using it beforehand to get the word out about our team, and get people a little bit more interested in rugby before we played.
And so it was so cool to see people wanting to tune in, because they saw us on TikTok.
Was there a moment when you were just like, I'm really influencing how people view female ruggers especially?
My dad's a big New York Times reader, and so when people were sending me a New York Times article about, you know, Ilona's become a rugby star before her first game, I thought that that was really cool, is that social media allows you to really connect with people in such a different way.
And so like, before I even played, I was able to get people into the sport, and to check out our sport on game days and be ready for it.
Do you think that women's rugby has a bad rap or do you think it doesn't get the attention that it deserves?
I think it just doesn't get the attention it deserves. But I think we also are working so hard to grow it. And it's going to take myself and my team, who work so hard, to get more girls in the U.S. interested in rugby.
Because we have some of the best athletes, you know, in the U.S. And if we could get people really into rugby, I think we could be a powerhouse in the world.
Is social media, you think, the driving force to get younger people interested in the sport so they can be in the development programs sooner?
I guess we've seen from like, the Olympics, that social media is going to be such a key player in it, because people are on their phones constantly.
So through TikToks, or whatever, they can be exposed to the sport, and think "Oh, you know, maybe I should try it out," and then hopefully get more numbers.
One of the big topics that I'm really curious to get your take on was Simone Biles during the Olympics, taking time off for her mental health. Did that impact you at all, or give you any reflection or pause about moving forward and how you treat mental health?
I think for me, it was like, so cool, because Olympians are looked at as, you know, we will have one job, we're not funny.
So even through like TikTok, we're noticing how, "Oh wait, Olympians are funny." So for me, it just showed how human we are. It allowed us, [Simone Biles] kind of gave everyone permission to be to be human, and to have you know, mental health struggles, because all of us Olympians do.
I think not talked about a lot is the Olympic experience when the Games are over, and what these athletes feel. And so Simone Biles being such a figure of the Olympics kind of gives us all like, "Okay, our feelings are valid as well."
"So through TikToks ... they can be exposed to the sport, and think 'Oh, you know, maybe I should try it out,' and then hopefully get more numbers."
You mentioned coming home from the Olympics is a transition. How has that been for you?
It was hard coming home without a medal. So, I know I'm an Olympian, but it's like hard to call myself that. So it's been great to come home to my family, to feel a little bit more like an Olympian.
But then it's kind of like, "Okay, well, what do I do now?" You train so hard for this one tournament, and then, you know, it can go so many different ways.
But it's been good. It's been a time with like, a lot of reflection.
Maher wasn’t the only Vermonter who competed. The two others are Elle Purrier St. Pierre, who ran the 1,500-meter race, and Brooke Mooney, who was on the women’s rowing team.