Beauty PR Maven Ann Ragan Kearns And Olympic Rugby Star Ilona Maher Team Up On A Skincare Brand For Female Athletes

Hours and hours in the pool did a number on Ann Ragan Kearns’ hair and skin. An NCAA Division 1 swimmer at Penn State University and Boston College in the late 2000s and early 2010s, she struggled with acne and hair loss (her eyebrows were totally gone at one point), and while she could purchase beauty products for her issues (brow filler was very helpful), she never encountered a brand that designed products specifically for her as a female athlete.

Fast forward and Kearns has learned a ton about the beauty market as founder of Odyssey Public Relations, a firm that’s worked with beauty companies Lake & Skye, Tru Fragrance, Undone Beauty and Bouclème, including that the gap in it she encountered over a decade ago for a beauty brand aimed at female athletes hadn’t closed. And it became pressing to her to fill it with female athletes rising in prominence (e.g, the Caitlin Clark effect) and inspiring girls around the world to get into the water and onto fields, courts, diamonds, matts and more.

“Female athletes have very specific skincare concerns that are brought on by not only the physical elements, but also the environment that they’re training in,” says Kearns. “I really wanted to create something that I wish that I had growing up to turn to in terms of a skincare brand that not only is dedicated to athletes, but can make the female athlete feel empowered, seen, heard and like they’re being really spoken to with the brand in terms of social messaging and the community.”

Olympic rugby player and Medalist co-founder Ilona Maher

Together with Olympic rugby player and social media sensation Ilona Maher, Kearns will launch the gen Z athlete-oriented brand Medalist on July 1 in advance of the Olympic games in Paris beginning later in the month with three products—$18 Game Face Moisturizing Spray, $24 Clean Sweep Cleansing Wipes and $20 No Fric Stick—and $60 kit The Locker Room Essentials with them all.

Kearns cold-emailed Maher last year about partnering with her on Medalist, and the pair instantly connected over their mutual athletic experiences. Simultaneously, Maher, whose followers across TikTok and Instagram surpass 1.5 million, was interested in becoming involved in a brand beyond a spokesperson role. She’s been tapped for sponsored social media posts by Maybelline, Laird Superfood and others.

“Seeing the branding and what Ann Ragan has done with it and the time and care that she spent, you can tell, oh, this is going to be a successful thing because she understands it. I went over the product briefs and was like, this is good, this has a certain look to it that I know people really love,” says Maher. “And just in terms of being a female athlete, we’re always looking to build our brand, build ourselves up because in your sport, especially rugby, you’re not making a lot of coin. So, we want to become very diversified and add a lot to our repertoire. That’s why I do the TikTok and Instagram because I want to build myself up so that I can live a life that’s comfortable also playing a sport.”

“It’s going to be very authentic for me to promote something that I’ve helped develop that I really back.”

Medalist’s products, which feature the anti-inflammatory ingredient cactus flower and are housed in black and pink packaging, have been tested by 30 female athletes of varying sports, ages and ethnicities, among them WNBA players, Olympians and collegiate competitors. Prior to the product testing, Kearns and Maher assembled a network of 300 female athletes to gauge the audience for Medalist and the products it should release. Ninety-four percent of them reported that, as athletes, they’re not happy with the products available today, and 96% reported that their top skincare concerns are acne and dryness.

“For all the products, it’s about instant skin benefits for long-term skin results. So, you can really use these products for the rest of your life,” says Theresa Plavoukos, head of product development at Medalist. “For the anti-chafe balm No Fric Stick, it will have an instant cooling effect. If you imagine an athlete comes off the field and maybe she’s chafing right where her shorts are, she can put it on there, it’s going to cool her, and it’s going to calm the irritation there, too.”

Maher has been sharing Medalist’s products with her teammates. “A wipe is really important, especially for field athletes. We’re putting sunscreen on our skin, we have dirt on our skin, we’re sweating. Coming off the field and having that ability to feel like you’re clean was something that everyone on my team talked about. It’s something really important for them,” she says. “And when we were on a flight to Australia recently, I literally just passed around my hydrating spray to my team, and everyone sprayed it on.”

Medalist co-founder and Odyssey Public Relations founder Ann Ragan Kearns

There’s no strict plan to place Medalist in a specific amount of Maher’s social media posts, but she believes she will naturally post about it because it’s in her regular product arsenal. “It’s going to be very authentic for me to promote something that I’ve helped develop that I really back,” she says. “There’s no really strategy for it, but it’s just showing how I use it in everyday life and sometimes in a funny way, sometimes in a serious way. I use the hydrating spray before I put on makeup.”

Maher has gained notice on social media for her body acceptance and humor. A recent TikTok post of hers on cellulite—”It’s just something that’s part of your body. We all have it,” she said in it—was covered by Sports Illustrated, People, ABC News and The Today Show, to name a few media outlets. Negative comments come with the territory, but Maher concentrates on the positives of her social media presence.

“I’ve gotten used to the comments, it happens on every post I do,” says Maher. “I just think of other girls that are getting these comments. If you’d have told a high school Ilona she looks a certain way that, even though I feel very feminine, she looks very masculine, it would ruin her inside. So, for me, it’s like, OK, do it to me so that you’re not hurting other people. But it’s also a weird thing that there’s new trends all the time. I think we are going into a trend back into skinniness. Having your body as a trend is something that’s so crazy to me. So, it’s like a battle you keep fighting that you’re really never going to win.”

“For all the products, it’s about instant skin benefits for long-term skin results.”

Medalist is busy building a community of female athletes to enable them to discuss the mental and emotional challenges of their sport along with comparatively lighter topics like products and dating. Maher is keen on preparing both her body and her mind for the upcoming Olympic games in Paris, particularly because her mental state deteriorated after the Tokyo Olympic games in 2021.

“I fell into a depression. You prepare your whole life for this one moment and this exciting time, then in a 14-minute game of rugby, the ball could bounce a certain way. You missed a tackle and your dream of having a medal is done, and you’re like, ‘Well, I have to wait another four years for this,’” she says. “So, I’m really just trying to enjoy those moments in between with my teammates because being a female athlete and being with my teammates, the laughs that we have in the locker room, the way that we connect is such a special thing.”

Medalist will be premiering on Amazon and in direct-to-consumer distribution. The brand is in conservations with retailers to potentially enter them late this year or early next. Currently, it’s in the middle of raising a pre-seed round with the objective of securing $500,000. So far, Kearns has poured in excess of $100,000 from her personal savings into developing Medalist.

Aimed at gen Z female athletes, Medalist is launching on July 1 with three products—$18 Game Face Moisturizing Spray, $24 Clean Sweep Cleansing Wipes and $20 No Fric Stick—and $60 kit The Locker Room Essentials with them all.

In the future, she envisions it launching products for specific sports environments (for instance, a water collection and field collection). A sunscreen and deodorant are in the pipeline. Sponsoring an array of female athletes is on Medalist’s roadmap as well.

“We’re working on making sure that we’re launching items that make sense and continuing to talk to our athletes. I think that that’s extremely important to keep this authenticity and transparency of the brand,” says Kearns. “We have big goals in terms of hopefully one day being acquired by a larger brand, but for now we’re willing to do the sweat equity.”