Rugby sevens player from Burlington vies for spot on US Olympic team

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A Rugby Sevens player from Burlington is training with the US team in San Diego for a chance to play in the Tokyo Olympics next month

Ilona Maher grew up playing basketball, field hockey and softball before she took up rugby in her senior year of high school. 

“Rugby is such a cool sport in that you need to have a balance of power and fitness. You have to be as strong as you can, while also being as fast and as fit as you can,” she said.

Rugby sevens, or seven-a-side rugby, is a game in which seven players play seven-minute halves, instead of the usual 15 players playing 40-minute halves. Mike S. Maher, Ilona’s father, said she’s a natural.

“Through playing sports, she developed this sense of distance and you could see it when she started playing field hockey,” he said. “She understood the concept of giving and taking space from an opponent.”

Ilona said she scored a try — grounding the ball in the opponents goal — in her first game. “I was like okay this is something I could really do,” she said.

After playing at Norwich University, Ilona transferred to Quinnipiac University. “Their program there was top notch, she said. “It was fully funded from the school, so it really felt like I was playing a varsity sport — a Division 1 sport.

At Quinnipiac University, she received the MA Sorensen award, given to the best collegiate women’s rugby player in the nation.  

“It was kind of my senior year of college when I was like you know I think I want to continue with rugby and see where I can take it,” said Ilona.

She spent her last semester at Quinnipiac competing in tournaments around the world – Peru, South Africa, Australia, Dubai – until she was recruited by the USA coach in Las Vegas in 2018. 

At the same time, Ilona was also working hard toward her degree. Today, she is a registered nurse.

“So a week after I graduated, I didn’t go to my graduation. I was like I got it, I made it. So I just headed out. and I’ve been training ever since then,” said Ilona.

She says rugby requires her to be fit and fast, but it’s something she loves to pursue.

“I love that it’s a very physical sport. We don’t get that from many women sports. A lot of them are very controlled, whereas you have men have football and lacrosse and sports that are very physical. And I love that, being a big women myself, I get to really translate that onto the field and use my power,” said Maher.

Maher says the Olympic roster will be announced Thursday. Her team will be taking 12 players and 3 replacements to compete July 29 – 31.

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