Team USA and TikToks: Rugby has 405 million global fans, and players like former Bobcat Ilona Maher are a reason why

Brendan Samson, Associate Podcast Producer

If you spend time on TikTok, chances are you’ve seen Ilona Maher.

The Quinnipiac graduate and player on the U.S. women’s rugby team recorded engaging videos documenting her time in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

If you take the time to continue to scroll through, you will find that her account goes far beyond her experience at the Olympics. Maher uses social media to promote body positivity and female rugby participation in the U.S.

“TikTok’s an app that really can reach a lot of people,” Maher said. “I want to use it as a way to continue to spread rugby and to continue showing girls how amazing this sport can be for their self-confidence and body image.”

The Olympics reintroduced rugby in 2016, and since, its interest worldwide has been on the rise. There are over 2.7 million girls and women participating in rugby globally, according to the Mastercard Women in Rugby program. This figure includes girls who participate in grade school, a demographic that was nonexistent just a few years ago.

Grade school and high school students are the groups that Maher tries to reach, girls with little to no knowledge about rugby, but a bright future ahead of them.

Ilona Maher’s proximity to New England universities allows her to visit college rugby teams to discuss the future of the sport. (Photo contributed by QU Athletics)

Maher’s home in Burlington, Vermont, has allowed her to travel to different schools and universities to speak to young athletes about a potential future in rugby.

“It’s kind of been my way to give back, traveling to these schools,” Maher said. “It’s been really nice to spread the word about rugby and through the TikToks, through the Olympics, we got more girls into rugby.”

The ability to visit schools is uncommon. Just ask Maher’s USA Rugby teammate, Nicole Heavirland, who does not have this same privilege from her home in Montana.

“That’s awesome that Lo is able to do that,” Heavirland said. “It’s pretty neat because, being in Vermont you’re kind of close to all different little states. Whereas I was like ‘all right, I’m in Montana, what schools can I go to? OK, Montana State, five hours away.’”

Even Maher was unaware of the future rugby could provide her when she was in college. It’s a driving factor for her advocacy today.

Maher attended Quinnipiac for two main reasons: she wanted to continue playing rugby and she wanted to get a degree in nursing. Neither of the two took precedence over the other until her senior year, when she realized that rugby was something she wanted to pursue.

“Senior spring, I just put my all into it,” Maher said. “Worked with coach Carlson, Emily Webster, who used to be a strength coach here, and made it my mission that I was gonna do whatever I could to get on the USA team.”

This new mission that Maher set at Quinnipiac was reflected in her work ethic, something that was clear to Quinnipiac women’s rugby head coach Becky Carlson.

“She got here, and she got into that high-performance environment and was able to take a look at the bigger picture and think beyond the ‘what if,’ and the ‘what if’ became ‘I can’ or ‘I will,’” Carlson said.

Heavirland has had a similar journey to Maher’s, a story that many U.S. rugby players have. After playing club rugby for two years in high school, Heavirland attended West Point for basketball. There, she only ended up playing one semester, and then switched over to rugby, where she felt a connection right away.

“I just fell in love with the team culture that was provided there,” Heavirland said. “I was getting asked to go to camps in Chula Vista, California, and I just knew that’s where I wanted to be. I want to be around all those hard-working athletes who had the same goal to play at their best and hopefully go to the Olympics.”

Heavirland and Maher’s journeys have paved the way for other female athletes to pick up rugby. Through social media, girls have reached out to Maher about their experience trying out rugby in college.

“Northeastern had a ton of girls at practice, I had a lot of girls who’ve been messaging me like, ‘I tried out for my rugby team’ so that has been really cool,” Maher said.

“I just love seeing girls who love the sport that I love so much,” Maher said. (Chronicle Archives (2017))

A big goal of the Olympic rugby team in Tokyo was not only to gain interest for the sport but also to cater to the younger generation.

“It’s growing and it’s very visible, it’s bigger each year, and that was the hope for the Olympics,” Heavirland said. “One of the motivations is ‘let’s get young girls and boys to want to play rugby.’”

As of 2019, there were a reported 405 million fans of rugby worldwide, according to a global study from Nielsen. Maher has done her best to bring that global interest to homes in the U.S.

“She brought it into the living rooms of people like ‘Oh, who’s this TikTok person they’re talking about? Oh, rugby, what is this? Let me turn on the channel and he watched some of the games,’” Carlson said. “The way a sport grows and how you know that you’re being successful is when the people that don’t understand rugby are actually flipping on the channel and interested in watching it, gathering the people that aren’t lifelong rugby people and bringing them over.”

Now Carlson is seeing this growth in the players she recruits.

“Five years ago, when I was recruiting, the average experience that they have is two years,” Carlson said. “Now I’m working on eight.”

Maher’s main tool has been social media to reach the masses, but whether it’s through TikTok or in person, she enjoys talking to girls who have a shared interest.

“I just feel like going there I can show them this is gonna be great, something fun that you can really do and there could be a professional route for this,” Maher said. “Just wanting to spread the word of rugby and I just love seeing girls who love the sport that I love so much.”