Who is Ilona Maher? How rugby player turned a TikTok sensation even before her Olympic debut

Ilona Maher gained quite a following with her TikTok videos that captured behind-the-scenes in Tokyo's Olympic village


                            Who is Ilona Maher? How rugby player turned a TikTok sensation even before her Olympic debut
Ilona Maher of Team United States looks out as she prepares to lead her team out onto the field at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Stadium on July 29, 2021, in Chofu, Japan (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Ilona Maher became a star of the Tokyo 2020 Games even before playing her first match as part of the US women’s rugby sevens team. She has garnered quite a following on TikTok after posting from the Olympic village and talking to the camera in her favorite Team USA bucket hat.

Despite the US losing in the quarterfinals to Great Britain on Friday, July 29, Maher is being called one of the breakout star athletes of the Olympics. The 24-year-old sensation gained millions of views on her entertaining TikTok videos that captured behind-the-scenes and goofy incidents in Tokyo's Olympic village.

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Maher's hilarious take on life as an Olympian in Japan took social media by storm in the past few weeks. One of her videos showed her eyeing up "a hot Olympian in the dining hall." Strutting around in her beloved bucket hat, the American athlete appears to be a big fan of the food spread being offered around the Olympic village for athletes. She has also been busy reviewing sleeping arrangements and the special cardboard beds made for them.

“Honestly, TikTok has been great to keep my mind off the Games," Maher said after USA's 28-14 win over China on Thursday in the rugby sevens. "It’s been a good way to share me with the world in a really genuine, authentic way and give people an inside look into the Olympics," she added.

Ilona Delsing Rosa Maher of the USA in action on day one of the Emirates Dubai Rugby Sevens - HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series at The Sevens Stadium on November 29, 2018, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Who is Ilona Maher?

An all-around athlete, Ilona Maher lettered in field hockey, basketball and soccer before starting rugby at the age of 17 at Norwich University. She fully transitioned into the sport after transferring to Quinnipiac University, where she earned All-American Honors and led her teammates to three titles in the National Intercollegiate Rugby Association (NIRA). In 2017, Maher was honored with the MA Sorenson Award, delivered to the best women's rugby player in college athletics, according to USA Rugby.

In 2018, Maher helped Scion Rugby Academy earn the Las Vegas Invitational's Elite title, before making her international debut at the 2018 Paris Sevens tournament. She was subsequently picked to compete at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018, in which she helped the Women's Sevens finish fourth at the first-ever US-hosted Rugby World Cup, according to USA Rugby.

Ilona Maher of the USA in action during the match between USA and Russia at the 2020 HSBC Sevens at FMG Stadium Waikato on January 25, 2020, in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

“I keep feeling like I’m gonna start crying because I’m so proud of her,” said Maher's childhood pal Anna Cote-Wurzler told VTDigger.org. “She’s been working for this our entire lives.”

Austin Hall, a former coach of Maher at Norwich, recalled the first time he saw her play. “I could tell she was going places. I mean, just the way she moved versus everyone else on the field,” Hall said. “She just had a spark to her.” 

Ilona Maher, Kris Thomas, and Abby Gustaitis of Team United States share a laugh as they prepare to take the field for the Women’s pool C match between the Team United States and Team Japan during the Rugby Sevens on day six of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Stadium on July 29, 2021, in Chofu, Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Her mother Mieneke Maher told the outlet that she and Ilona talked most days despite the 13-hour time difference. Meanwhile, she also kept up with her daughter's Olympic journey through TikTok. “She just has an incredible knack for projecting kindness and inclusiveness and just, you know, normalcy through the TikToks, which is incredible,” Mieneke Maher said of her daughter's antics, adding, “When I watch them, even I giggle.”

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