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Ilona Maher: Then there's that "Wicked-Strong Fend"

By: Mark Janzen

In just five words, USA teammate Nicole Heavirland described budding superstar Ilona Maher in a way most foes have flailingly experienced firsthand.

“She’s no fun to tackle.”

It’s everything – her speed, her physicality, her determination, and, yeah, there’s also that wicked-strong fend.

In the season-opening World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series tournament in Glendale, Colorado this past October, the 5-foot-10 Maher showed the rugby world exactly what Heavirland means. Tallying seven tries in six games, Maher, 22, scorched the opposition using the breadth of her toolbox. A hat-trick against Australia in the quarter-finals, and an all-world late-game try-saving tackle against France in the semifinals put Maher front and center.

Six weeks later, and with only two series appearances to her name, she was a “One to Watch” in World Rugby’s promotion for the tournament in Dubai. The honour was a no-brainer, but it also stated what had become obvious to every other team on the circuit: Maher was a quite literally one player that every coach was watching.

Even for Heavirland, a sevens star herself and a roommate of Maher’s on tour, Maher had become a threat she’d rather not deal with being set against in training sessions. The Eagles veteran exhaled a sigh of relief when she was partnered with the powerful product of Burlington, Vermont.

“Sweet…Lo’s on my team,” Heavirland admits thinking more than a time or two. “I don’t need to tackle her.”

A sprained ankle Maher sustained in the tournament-opening game in Sydney this past February gave the Eagles opposition a five-match reprieve from facing the imposing graduate of Quinnipiac University. But an 11-week break on the circuit had Maher back in the fold for last weekend’s stop in Kitakyushu. Fans of Maher rejoiced. Her series foes not so much.

But before we get too far, it might be time to pause for a second. The very fact that we’re writing this article with lofty praise about this athlete at the end of April 2019 is still a little bit crazy. It’s not the article itself that’s crazy. She deserves it. The crazy part is simply the trajectory she’s riding.

Then again, for those who knows Maher a little bit better, perhaps it doesn’t seem all that crazy at all.

A year ago, Maher was still two months away from making her debut with USA’s sevens side.

Let that sink in.

In the spring of 2018, she was doing two things: completing her nursing degree from Quinnipiac University and obsessively training so she’d be ready for her next opportunity with the Eagles.

Now, let’s be clear here. Maher already had a pronounced rugby-playing pedigree. With Quinnipiac, she helped lead the Bobcats to three straight National Intercollegiate Rugby Association championships, from 2015 to 2017 and, in her junior year (2016-17), she earned the MA Sorensen Award as the nation’s top college rugby player. So, yeah, she was good, and she was known in rugby circles. But in the sevens game, her only opportunity at the highest level had been an unsuccessful training camp with the Eagles prior to their Sydney stop in 2018. But it was that Sydney camp that motivated Maher on the hard days in Hamden, Connecticut.

Training at a world-class level while finishing her studies, Maher eventually got an opportunity to show her progress at the Las Vegas Invitational, where she helped Scion Rugby capture the women’s title.

“That was a big turning point for me,” Maher says. “That was a chance for me to show what I can do.”

Three months later, she was named to the Eagles roster for the final stop on the World Series, making her debut in Paris.

Then six weeks after that, there was Maher again, representing USA at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco.

Then came Glendale, then Dubai, then Sydney (for one game) and then Kitakyushu.

“It should feel like a whirlwind, but I don’t think about it like that,” Maher says. “I really feel like I’ve been prepared for each step and I’ve just made it part of my everyday life.”

And maybe it’s that “everyday life” part that is the very reason she finds herself now regularly barging through the best tacklers in the world.

After competing at the World Cup, Maher was back doing two things: preparing for the 2018-19 season and becoming a registered nurse in the state of California.

“I’m always thinking that there’s someone out there who is working harder than you,” Maher says, admitting her focused work ethic permeates through both her athletic and medical endeavours. “That’s what pushed me.”

Maher is the type of person who, as a young basketball prodigy, played five games in two days with her AAU basketball team (Lone Wolf Athletics), took the steering wheel from her dad for the last two hours of a seven-hour trip home, and then went to her bedroom to do one more workout before bed.

“If she’s given work to do, she does it and then she looks for extra,” says her dad, Michael Maher, who was proud to tell the story of a then 16-year-old Ilona.

“I’m watching the (New York) Giants game on the couch,” Michael recalls. “I’m completely exhausted and I hear a noise. She was doing her (workout).”

A multi-sport athlete in high school, playing field hockey, basketball and softball before taking up rugby in the spring semester of her senior year, Maher moved on to university and her work ethic followed – again, in both nursing and rugby.

“I want to be the best and work super hard and that translates not only into rugby but everything else I do,” Maher says. “For me, that translated into nursing.”

Watch Maher for just a few minutes on the pitch and the bruising star might not immediately appear to possess the characteristics of a compassionate nurse type. She is.

“I really love the patient care aspect of it and how much one-on-one time you can have with patients,” Maher says. “I really do enjoy nursing and how much you can help people and the impact you can have on people’s lives. As a nurse, you want to be compassionate and genuine and a good person and I want to be that way in every aspect of my life.”

So, the best word to describe Maher is “impact.”

Impact on the field. Check. Future impact in a hospital. Check. Impact on her teammates. Check.

“She’s authentic,” Heavirland says. “She makes me laugh.”

Maher is the one with the bright red lipstick, the heels, the big smile and the pumpkin spice latte (she likes going to the cool coffee shops with her teammates, but she’s not quite Heavirland “You’re not going to catch me just sipping on a Colombian dark roast that they brewed with a siphon,” Maher says with a laugh. “I’m a cappuccino and latte type.”

“She’s always herself,” Heavirland adds. “And, with that, she’s very confident.”

In the span of a year, that unique and impact-oriented personality has come to fruition on the pitch.

“She generally gets things right quicker than others because she cares so much about it and she doesn’t want to get it wrong,” says USA women’s sevens coach Chris Brown. “It comes down to her as an individual. She’s hungry to develop and hungry to grow. She’s very hard on herself. (To be honest), I expect to see what she does on tour because she’s so consistent in training.”

Back on the international pitch last weekend in Japan, Maher took the next step in her already impressively steep trajectory.

And fortunately for Heavirland and the rest of the high-flying Eagles, when training is over, they’ll have Maher on their side rather than barreling down the field toward them.