From Ghana To Korea: History-Making Speedskater Maame Biney Soaking In Her First Olympic Experience

By Emily Giambalvo | Feb. 10, 2018, 12:12 a.m. (ET)

Maame Biney competes in the women's 500-meter at the 2018 U.S.Olympic Team Trials for Short Track Speedskating on Dec. 16, 2017 in Salt Lake City, Utah.  

 

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- At the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Short Track Speedskating two months ago, Maame Biney qualified for her first Olympic team, and she almost instantly realized an unprecedented spotlight beaming down on her.

In a week, she said, the number of followers she had on Instagram grew from 500 to 5,000 after she became the first black woman to qualify for a U.S. Olympic speedskating team. 

“Holy cow, this is amazing,” she remembers thinking. “This is so cool.”

The then-17-year-old short track speedskater didn’t even have a phone. Her dad didn’t think she needed one yet, so Biney just checked the app on her iPod.

At Olympic trials, Biney won the 500-meter. In PyeongChang, she will compete in the 500 and the 1,500. Since December, Biney’s breakout speedskating success and her full-of-energy personality have surged to the forefront of her sport.

Plus, she’s now the owner of her first phone, Biney said, shrieking with excitement. She called it a “birthday present, good-job present, keep-me-updated present” from her dad.

Biney, now 18, smiled through the answers she gave reporters during a press conference and laughed uncontrollably every so often. At one point, she glanced into a camera to say hi to her best friend back home.

The joy, she said, comes from her past. Biney was born in Ghana, where her mom and younger brother still live. She came to the United States to visit her dad when she was 5. The visit became permanent. She settled in with her dad in Maryland before they moved to Virginia a few months later.

“I don't take things for granted because I know things back home aren't as great as things in America,” Biney said. “I always try to have a happy face and give everyone joy.”

Still, there comes a time that the smile fades and her laughter subsides. Biney described her skating as fierce and strong.

“My game face on the ice is totally different from right now,” Biney said during a press conference in which she seemed to laugh just as much as she talked. “It's not this. It's like a don’t-be-in-my-way [mentality].”

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A year ago, Biney earned bronze in the 500-meter at the short track junior world championships, making her just the second American to ever medal at this competition. After that, Biney said she started to realize, “Wow, I can actually go somewhere with this.”

Last July, she moved to Park City, Utah, and lived with a host family so she could train in Salt Lake City. There, Biney has high-level training partners. Since moving, Biney evolved from a junior world championships medalist to a Olympic trials champion. Now, she’s ready to compete in the PyeongChang Games.

In the Olympic Village, Biney is rooming with Lana Gehring and Jessica Kooreman, both of whom have previously represented the U.S. at the Olympic Winter Games. The three speedskaters have been staying up until midnight, Gehring said, so they can acclimate to how they’ll be racing at night in South Korea. Biney doesn’t typically train with her Olympic teammates and they have never roomed together, so that time, Gehring said, is “really helping us come together.”

Gehring and Kooreman have given Biney advice based on their own Olympic experiences, while also making sure Biney embraces her own time at the Games.

“We want to have her do everything with us,” Gehring said. “It only happens every four years, and you don't know if you're going to make it again.”

Biney wants to meet people from other countries and athletes who compete in different sports. In PyeongChang, the three U.S. teammates have all been trading pins and wearing matching clothes even when they aren’t required to.

It hasn’t quite hit Biney that she’s at the Games. That realization will probably come when she’s standing at the starting line, she said.

“Don't be scared to take it all in,” Biney said her teammates told her. “So I'm swallowing it all up.”

Emily Giambalvo is a student in the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is part of TeamUSA.org’s coverage team for the PyeongChang Games.

For live video and highlights of the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, head to the networks of NBC and NBCOlympics.com.