How Team USA Rugby Star Ilona Maher Stays Strong

Alexandra Engler
Alexandra Engler

mbg Beauty Director

By Alexandra Engler

mbg Beauty Director

Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she’s held beauty roles at Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and

Ilona Maher

July 01, 2024

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We love celebrating women on top of their game. In our new series Game On, we’re interviewing top athletes about their well-being routines—covering everything from nutrition that makes them feel strong to the moments that bring them joy. 

If you’ve come across 27-year-old Team USA Rugby star Ilona Maher’s TikTok videos, you know how charming she can be. Considering her page has over 1.1 million followers and 87.7 million likes, there’s a good chance you’ve come across a video or two if you’re on the platform. In fact, when I shared that I’d recently interviewed Maher to a friend, she gushed: I love her TikToks

“If you want to make a career out of rugby or if you want to make enough money as a professional athlete in rugby, you have to have a social media presence. I treat it as a second job, if not right up there with my first job of being an athlete. Because at the spot we are as a sport and a women’s sport, I’m not going to get too much of a livable income with just rugby,” she told me about why she’s made social media a priority.

The rugby center’s exploding popularity may be thanks to her social media prowess, but make no mistake: Her strength will take center stage during this year’s Olympic Games in Paris. As she gears up for her second Olympics, I was able to chat with her about how she stays strong, what fuels her, and why she wears lipstick on the field. 

mindbodygreen: What meals make you feel strongest? 

Ilona Maher: I don’t feel bad about eating. I’ve been training my mind and training myself to [get to that mindset]. Even being a professional athlete—but I think all women experience this—we deal with eating and our bodies. For me, it’s been really freeing to learn what foods it takes to be at my top performance. The meals feel good when I know I need this food to fuel myself. 

I’m more about function versus form. Because right now I’m supposed to be big. I’m supposed to be powerful. And I’m using these meals to do it. 

But my favorite meals have to be the ones that my mom makes. It’s homey. It’s what I grew up on. It’s what kind of made me into the athlete I am today. 

She can cook a steak like no one else, and she makes this chicken satay that’s amazing. She marinates the chicken, grills it, and then makes this peanut butter sauce that you dip it in by the spoonful. I would say that’s my favorite.

mbg: How do you mentally prepare for a game? 

Maher: It’s interesting because I try not to let rugby control my mind the whole time. When people are like, “Oh, how do you do social media with the rugby?” But it’s actually about finding that balance because if I was thinking about rugby all the time, it would be a lot. I think sometimes it can be a nice escape. 

But to get into the game, before it starts, I do have to amp myself up. It’s such a hard sport. I feel so tired constantly. I’m getting beat up out there. And we play in these hot places.

I say to myself before I’m about to run out, “If it were easy, everybody would do it. This is a very hard sport, and I’m so honored that I can do it.” It kind of puts it into perspective when I’m tired. 

It’s also about connecting with my teammates and getting to do this with my best buddies. 

mbg: What’s the most intense thing you’ve ever tried to optimize your performance? 

Maher: I don’t know if this is really intense, but heat training. We play in such hot environments sometimes—like Singapore; Hong Kong; Perth, Australia, during heat waves, and as high as 114 degrees—so we get into heat acclimation. Preparing yourself to be able to perform in that environment starts back home. So even now I do heat acclimation just to prepare myself for summer in Paris. 

For example, we’ll sit in the sauna after we did a bike session in a heated room with sweatshirts and sweatpants on. Or we get into a hot tub with our sweatpants on. 

mbg: How do you rebound after a tough game? 

Maher: That’s been something I’ve definitely been learning, like constantly. It never gets easier, but you learn how to deal with it better in a way. In the last Olympics, we lost, and that was very hard, but I’ve been learning how to play it to my advantage.

After we lose, one thing I focus on is connecting with my teammates.

Because a lot of times people put things on themselves like, “Oh, I knocked that ball on,” or “I missed that tackle that led to [the loss].” It’s important to remember that no one moment loses a game for us. We have so many moments throughout a game, and it’s never that one moment. Like, yeah, maybe someone missed that tackle, but what about earlier in the game when I missed it? 

You’re not out there alone, and you’re not losing on your own. You’re losing with this other group of women who are going through the same stuff. So it’s really important to be with them and connect with them, laugh about it, talk about the parts that went well, the parts that went bad, what to take from it. 

mbg: I wanted to ask you about teammates anyway. One of the things that playing sports teaches us is how to be a good teammate and how to show up for other people. So what makes a good teammate? How do you show up for your teammates?

Maher: I think what’s fun about being on a team is having those different personalities around you. You need the person who is going to go quiet and wants to get in their head before a game. Or myself before a game, I’m loud, I want to dance, and I want to connect with people. So it’s important to recognize there are so many different teammates and personalities that make up a team—and that’s what makes a team special. You don’t want all the same athletes out there. 

Being a good teammate is also about helping others rise up as well. For example, what I’ve been trying to do on social media has been for myself, but it’s also been for my teammates. I try to bring them into any video I can or encourage them to post. 

My teammate once told me “a rising tide lifts all boats,” which is a great way to think about it. It’s about lifting up others, lifting my teammates, and making them feel good.

mbg: The social media side of it is interesting because we’re definitely in this moment in which women athletes are receiving more—and much deserved—attention. And for many athletes, social media can be a tool to ensure longevity in their career or after their career. You mentioned earlier that it’s about finding a balance between the two—how do you find that balance?

Maher: I’ve almost had to find a balance. If you want to make a career out of rugby or if you want to make enough money as a professional athlete in rugby, you have to have a social media presence. I treat it as a second job, if not right up there with my first job of being an athlete. Because at the spot we are as a sport and a women’s sport, I’m not going to get too much of a livable income with just rugby. 

I do get paid for rugby, and it’s amazing that I have that possibility for me in the U.S. But all of us want to make more money, and all of us want to get sponsored. And after the [Tokyo] Olympics, I realized, Oh this is how I can do that. I have to use this tool to my advantage. 

My teammates and I talk about this all the time, “I want to make more money,” or “I want to get sponsors,” and the thing is: You have to post. It’s a very vulnerable state, but you have to put yourself out there. It’s scary sometimes, but I view it as This is how I make this career sustainable. 

For a lot of athletes after they retire, they just go back to regular jobs—like this was all a fever dream of traveling the world to play rugby. But I want to make this my career long term.

Game On with Ilona Maher as a kid

Image by mbg Creative / courtesy of source

mbg: This touches on a topic I wanted to discuss anyway: What are the double-standards that exist for women versus men in rugby that you want to address?

Maher: Well, I think the first thing is that rugby is only a men’s sport—that it is so physical, it’s not meant for women and you have to be a man to play it. And to play rugby as a woman, there’s this idea that you have to almost reject your femininity and go out there and be a masculine version of yourself.

And for a lot of sports, that stops girls from playing. Because they’ll think, I don’t want people to think of me this way or I don’t want to risk my femininity or how beautiful I feel. 

Those misconceptions stop people from playing sports. They stop people from really understanding what their body’s capable of. Sports give your body a purpose that’s not just to be looked at and objectified. I think sports give you an appreciation for your body. 

I think for me, being that rugby athlete in the limelight, I want to show that I can be this very big, powerful person, but I can also wear lipstick on the field to show that you can bring your femininity on the field too. I know that in our seventh circuit now, we have a lot of girls who put on a full face of makeup and who want to go out there and be pretty. I love that because I don’t think you have to sacrifice that to play this traditionally very “manly” sport. 

I think what’s cool about our game is that people are like, “Oh, well maybe it’s not like the men’s in every way, It’s different in some ways and different doesn’t mean bad. They’re still both very exciting games to watch.”

mbg: That’s a really important message because when you look at the research, the reason young girls drop out of sports at a higher rate than boys is usually because of confidence issues. So to show that you can be confident in both sides of yourself is really valuable. Speaking of embracing different sides of yourself: I know you love beauty products. What products do you love using right now? 

Maher: I’ve been using Medalist, which is a new brand that’s by athletes for athletes. We’ve been testing out the products—like No Fric Stick Anti Chafe + Cooling Balm—which I use on and off the field. It’s been really helpful for my pregame, pre-practice, and after-practice routine.

What I really love is that we’re working with athletes of all abilities, all sports, and all disciplines. Athletes come in truly all shapes and sizes and need their skin care routines!

mbg: Being a professional athlete has a unique challenge of it being this thing you obviously love doing but is—at the end of the day—a high-pressure job. In what moments do you find that childlike joy again?

Maher: It’s funny, before practices, we’ll play fun games. It’s literally grown women—you know, some in our late 20s or 30s—playing tag with each other. We’re laughing and giggling. I made a joke that my friend just got married and bought a house, but I’m here playing tag with my friends in the sun. But that brings me back to like why I love it. 

I love the community of sports, how it brings you in, and how it makes you feel about yourself. I think that those are the moments where I really get back to why I love rugby and love the people I get to do it with. 

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