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Social media is constantly evolving. What started as a virtual social networking concept turned into multi-media platforms that allow people to not only connect with others, but also give people a space where they can showcase art, music, photography, and many other talents.

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The popular video-based app, TikTok, emerged in late 2016 and quickly filled the void that Vine left when it was shut down. It was a slow start for the newest app on the market and for a while, it wasn’t widely used. However in 2020, when everyone was quarantined at home due to COVID-19, TikTok found its window and was downloaded 850 million times that year. Olympic rugby player Ilona Maher was one of those downloads.

“It wasn't until the beginning of the pandemic when I had to download [TikTok], actually, because of a team challenge,” Maher said. “Somebody in the group had to make a TikTok. So I was like, ‘I'll download the app and I'll create a TikTok.’ And then I really didn't do much on the app.”

As the world continued to rebuild from the pandemic, Maher and her team were able to travel to a tournament in Spain in 2021. One day, Maher decided to create and post a TikTok, and she saw the response to her video was positive. It all snowballed from there — Maher kept posting, viewers kept responding, and her followers kept growing.

Maher’s content, in the beginning, was just a lot of rugby videos with some body-positive content sprinkled in there. By the time the Tokyo Olympics rolled around, Maher had amassed a large following on TikTok — over 87,000 followers at the time — and she was ready to make a name for herself.

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“I knew that the Olympics would be a great time to get myself out there, my message out there,” Maher said. “So I really kind of did what I could then. I think [the Olympics] allowed me to get acquainted with TikTok and if I hadn’t gone to the Olympics, I don't think I would be where I am now. It was kind of a weird, ‘everything happens for a reason’ situation.”

While in Tokoyo, Maher began posting content from her Olympic Village room, anywhere between her dancing to her showing her Olympic fits of the day. That’s all Maher thought her content would be. However the Games brought to light struggles athletes go through, both physically and mentally, on and off the court or field, and Maher felt it was time to speak up.

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Mental health in athletes has only recently become a topic of conversation, all thanks to Simone Biles’ courageous moment at the Tokyo Games when she stepped back from competition to focus on her mental health. When she announced her decision, Biles, unfortunately, received a lot of backlash from the media about her temporary departure from the competition.

Maher stated that people tend to hold athletes on pedestals and think they are indestructible. Biles’ moment at the Olympics proved that athletes are humans too, and everyone has their own uphill battle to contend with when it comes to mental health.

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“I think with my own mental health, I've always wanted to be the strongest one,” Maher said. “I've always wanted to be the strong daughter, the strong sibling who doesn't really struggle with mental health, but it was a very dark time for me. I would say I went through a depression of some sort. And I think just showing that it's okay and it doesn't take away from who you are, and it doesn't change the athlete.”

Mental health is a very broad topic, and for those who struggle, it can be very debilitating. There’s one issue in particular — body image — that tends to get worse due to social media, something Maher is trying to change.

“I've always struggled with body image as well, [but] I've learned to appreciate my body,” Maher said. “I don't know where I got all the confidence from, but I found that confidence can be really contagious. Seeing people online who look like you or who are confident in their bodies can show you and other people, ‘maybe I can also like my body like this girl does.’

While Maher continues to spread her body-positive light with her fans, she also wants to make sure she's as transparent and real as possible. Maher added that as a professional athlete, her body is her job and it does so much for her, but even she has days where she stands in the mirror and points out things she doesn't like about her body. But to Maher, it’s all about changing the narrative.

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“I'm not going to love my body all the time, but I will appreciate it and remember exactly what it does for me,” Maher said. “I'll remember that even when I look in the mirror, [my body] is still going to take that walk. It's still going to allow me to run, jog, and skip. I just really appreciate the little things it does for me. And I think that this can help in those moments when [people] aren't feeling too confident and aren't feeling too beautiful just to take a step back, and appreciate even the little things [their body] does.”

Photo credits: Ilona Maher’s Instagram