Maame Biney competes short track speedskating quarterfinal at the Winter Olympic Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 13, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.
Maame Biney needed a break, so she gave herself permission to take a long one.
For four and a half months, the Olympic short track speedskater — who turned 18 in January — stepped away from the ice to catch her breath and find her bearings.
She only resumed training about five weeks ago, so she’s not quite sure how she’ll perform this weekend when she enters the 500-, 1,000- and 1,500-meter races at the U.S. Speedskating Short Track Fall World Cup Qualifier at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns, Utah.
“My legs are not the best right now,” she said, laughing. “But I’m not going to expect myself to do super, super well.”
In the long run, though, she knows it won’t matter. Of course, she’ll go hard. Her competitive juices will kick in and she’ll try to win every event, just as she always does.
But after a long, eventful year that included qualifying for her first Olympic Winter Games, competing in them and learning how to process an onslaught of media attention (that she admits she wasn’t prepared for), the teenager is taking a longer view of her short-track career. She’s learned it’s a long road to success on the world stage, and part of getting where she wants to go involves taking some time off.
“I was just wanting to rest and wanted to get away from skating for a little bit because I had such a busy, crazy year,” she said. “I just wanted to rest my mind and my body and focus on meeting up with friends, and school.”
Plus, Maame (pronounced MAH-may) wanted to enjoy graduating from high school in Reston, Virginia, and take time to get ready for college. She’s now a freshman at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, majoring in information systems. Attending Utah will allow her to go to school while also training in Kearns.
The first two months off, she said, were wonderful. After that, she started getting antsy.
“(The later weeks) were really boring in a way because all my friends left to go on vacations with their family, or go out of the country,” she said. “So for the first time I’m not out of the country, they’re out of the country. It was crazy. It got a little boring. But I had my dad and I just focused on what I needed to get done for college.”
A Whirlwind Year
The craziness began in December of 2017 when Biney won the 500-meter at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials to qualify for the Winter Games that coming February in PyeongChang, South Korea. By doing so, Biney — who was born in Ghana and moved to the U.S. to live with her father at age 5 — became the first African-American woman to qualify for an Olympic speedskating team.
That fact, combined with her youth, talent and giggly, outgoing personality, thrust her onto center stage. Suddenly, she was being interviewed by reporters from network television, national newspapers and magazines.
“I was so overwhelmed from all the attention I was getting, I could not handle it,” she said. There were times she found herself in tears, just on sensory overload from it all. It took her weeks to get used to the new normal.
Then came the Games in South Korea, where she reached the quarterfinals of the 500-meter and was eliminated early in the 1,500. She was disappointed — she says she’s always her own worst critic — but came to realize she was competing against mostly older athletes with much more experience.
“They know how to handle the pressure way better than I do,” she said.
It was a crash course. At her first Games — as a teen, no less — she learned she shouldn’t have expected herself to be perfect. If she could go back, she says she’d want to take more time to look around, realize where she was, what she’d done and appreciate every moment of the Olympics. She still had a wonderful experience, but she believes she could have savored it more.
“What I regret now is not taking all of it in which I could,” she said. “Running around all the time, doing this, doing that and not really taking a step back and pausing for a second and going like, ‘Oh, goodness gracious, I’m really enjoying this right now.’ And I did. But I wish I had taken longer to do that.
A month after the Games, Biney went to the junior world championships in Poland and came away with a gold in the 500 (the first ever won by a U.S. woman at junior worlds), a bronze in the 1,000 and the overall bronze medal.
Just a year ago at this time, Biney was ascending — she’d won a bronze in the 500-meter at the junior worlds in 2017 — but was on nobody’s radar but those in the short-track world. Since then, that’s changed. During the Games, she was thrilled to meet comedian Leslie Jones after one race. Recently, too, she got to hang out with model/actress Cara Delevingne for a day (“I was like, ‘Can I have your phone number please so we can just talk?’”) and was invited to be on a panel at the espnW Women + Sports Summit in Newport Beach, California, which brought top female athletes and media members together.
“Meeting those ladies, they were amazing and I’m so honored to even be in their presence,” said Biney.
With this season about to begin, Biney knows she has several things she wants to work on. She’d like to get back to the Olympics in 2022 in Beijing, and to get there she says she has to refine her techniques and get more experience in big-time races against elite competition. She also is eager to look at things with a fresh attitude. She can’t get to the Olympic starting line at Beijing next week. She has to take it step by step, year by year and absorb all the lessons along the way.
“I have time to relax and work hard and not to stress over everything because it’s not worth doing it three and a half years before 2022,” she said. “It would be really stupid of me to stress over those Olympics because it’s not here yet. Taking it one step at a time and knowing it will all fall into place. Knowing that I have to trust myself.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.