Remember this name: Maame Biney.
The short track speedskater just turned 18; she’s not even out of high school. But she’s already one of the biggest U.S. names at the Winter Olympics.
When Biney won the 500-meter finals at team trials in December, with a personal-best time of 43.161 seconds, she became the first African-American woman ever to qualify for a U.S. Olympic speedskating team. (Twenty-five-year-old Erin Jackson is the second, qualifying in long track.) She is competing this week in the women’s 500- and 1,500-meter races in Gangneung, South Korea.
Biney has a goofy giggle and an electric, nonstop smile. Her game face, though, is something else.
“It’s not this!” she says. “It’s like, ‘Don’t be in my way, ‘cuz I’m probably gonna kill you!'”
And with that, realizing she’s blurted something impolitic, she covers her face with her hands and collapses in laughter.
‘Fierce and strong’
Just about everything Biney says ends with her irrepressible teenage giggle. She has a built-in joyfulness that charms everyone she meets, including the U.S. team head coach Anthony Barthell.
“Even when she’s mad, she’s still smiling,” Barthell says. “That’s just Maame.”
Barthell first saw Biney skate when she was 11, and even then, he realized this girl was special.
“Explosiveness?” he says. “She has a ton of that.”
Biney has the speed and power of a sprinter. It’s her powerful start — thighs like pistons, arms pumping — that makes her so formidable in the 500-meter race.
But ask Biney what makes her great in short track, and she demurs.
“I wouldn’t exactly call myself great,” she says. “I’ll just call myself, like, in there, in the little mix!”
That “little mix,” though, is brutal.
Short track speedskating demands smart, aggressive strategy as the skaters jockey for position on their 111-meter oval track, leaning into tight corners, zooming at speeds up to 30 miles an hour. A false move will send them crashing into the pads.
“I like to call myself fierce,” Biney says. “Fierce and strong and — just go out there!”
Too fast for figure skating
Biney took an unlikely path into her sport. She was born in Ghana, where — her father Kweku jokes — their only use for ice is to chill beer.
Kweku Biney emigrated to the U.S., settling in the Washington, D.C. area. Maame came to visit him when she was five. She ended up staying; her mother and brother still live in Ghana.
One day, driving through the Virginia suburbs, her father saw a sign for a local rink that said “Learn to Skate.”
Maame tried it, and started figure skating — but she was so fast, the teacher steered her to speedskating.
Obviously, it took.
Kweku Biney, who for years took his daughter to her early-morning practices, will be watching from the stands when his daughter competes in the 500-meter race on Tuesday. Maame says he will be holding up the same sign he held at the Olympic trials in December.
“Yes!” she says. “He’s gonna bring that ‘Kick Some Hiney Biney’ sign!”
So, just how good can this young speedskater eventually be? Barthell sees huge potential.
“Once she learns a little more finesse and being able to conserve, she’s gonna be even better,” he says. “I think you guys have seen only a quarter of what she has. Maybe less than that.”
For now, Biney is trying to stay focused and shrug off the pressure of these Games. It’s hard not to feel giddy, though.
“When I get on that line,” she says, “I’ll be like, ‘Holy moly! I’m actually here! This is the Olympics! WOW!'”
But she recognizes that her achievement is bigger than herself.
“That means I get to inspire other kids in the United States, maybe all over the world,” she says, “to just go out there and do what you love, because you never know! You just might accomplish your goal.”