Maame Biney (L) and Erin Jackson compete at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 in February 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.
During Black History Month last February, Maame Biney and Erin Jackson added their names to the list of trailblazing African-American athletes.
They were the first black women to compete for Team USA in Olympic speedskating, Biney in short track and Jackson in long track at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
“Parents have told me, ‘Hey, for my child’s Black History Month person, my child chose you,’” said Biney. “And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s so cool, and I’m super honored.’ They have many other options and they chose me.”
The parents even took photos of the papers their children wrote about Biney and sent them to her. “Those meant a lot to me,” she said.
Jackson received messages on Facebook and Instagram from students asking to interview her for school projects. “It’s always nice to take the time for the kids,” she said.
Jackson added that young African Americans can look at her achievements and Biney’s and “maybe see themselves in that and see the possibilities for them, because there aren’t that many black people in the Winter Olympics. I think it’ll be nice to get more faces out there."
When Biney was growing up, she remembered studying Martin Luther King Jr., during Black History Month.
“I think it’s super cool that young kids recognize me as a role model like that,” Biney said. “I’ve mentioned multiple times that I never really thought I’d be able to be in a position like this.”
Jackson wanted to be an astronaut like her idol, Mae Jemison, and that desire eventually morphed into earning a degree in materials engineering so she could help in the construction of shuttles and rockets.
Jackson said of her Olympic “first” that, “I hadn’t really thought about it until it started coming out in the headlines.” She then realized, “Oh yeah, that’s actually pretty awesome.”
Biney was a rising star in speedskating, having appeared in two junior world championships, taking a bronze in 2017. Then she won the 500-meter at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Short Track Speedskating while she was still 17 years old.
In Gangneung, South Korea, Biney, who turned 18 just before the Games, was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the 500 after a bump rattled her into last place. She was also last in her 1,500-meter qualifying heat.
She went on to the world junior championships in Poland the following month, capturing her first gold medal in the 500 (plus bronze medals in the 1,000 and overall).
Jackson, like many other long track speedskaters, came out of inline skating. With only five months of training, she made Team USA in the 500-meter.
“My life changed the minute I crossed the finish line (at the trials), and I was thinking, ‘Wow, what now?’” Jackson said. “It was a really big surprise and I wasn’t really prepared for it. So it was a little stressful at first, kind of overwhelming. Once I figured out all the things I needed to do, I just sat down and thought, ‘I can do this if I have a good plan.’”
At the oval in Gangneung, she placed 24th in the 500 after missing several days of training with the flu.
But Jackson knew she’d barely scratched the surface of her potential in the sport.
Now that they’re established as Black History Month subjects, Biney and Jackson are still adding to their stories.
Both have moved to Utah to be close to the Olympic Oval in Kearns, Biney uprooting from Virginia and Jackson from Florida.
“I finally made the jump to get my own place in Utah,” said the 26-year-old Jackson, “because before I wasn’t really sure if I was going to stick with it.”
And now? “I think I’m going to stick around. I can see there’s a future in it if I just keep working at it.”
Both speedskaters see each other at training but refrain from talking about skating since they live it 24-7.
“Recently we’ve been talking about the struggles of finding good hair care around Utah, because there aren’t that many African-American people in Utah,” Jackson said.
Biney said folks will say to her, “You look like someone who is an athlete.” “I’m like, ‘Yeah, I am a skater.’ They think that I’m a skateboarder.”
When she tells them she’s a short tracker, “They’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, like Apolo (Ohno)!’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, exactly like him.’”
After the 2017-18 season, Biney took five months off. She resumed training in late August while taking a full class load at the University of Utah, where she is studying information systems.
“Definitely the first couple of months were really hard, like crying every day,” said the normally bubbly Biney, “because I was not at the level that I was at before and wanted to be.”
One reason was that her teammates were doing two ice sessions, and she was only doing one, since she had afternoon classes, “so I was taking one step forward while they were taking 10 steps forward,” Biney said. “I wasn’t able to really catch up to them."
She finally caught up in the past couple of months, setting the world junior record in the 500 of 43.212 seconds en route to the gold medal at the world junior championships in Montreal in January.
“When they announced I got the world record, I was like, ‘No way! The timing system has to be wrong.’”
Alas, this was her last year at junior worlds. “Yes, it’s a sad day,” Biney said. “I told my coach, ‘At least I went out with a bang. No one can forget me now.’”
In senior competition, Biney then earned two bronze medals at the final world cup of the season, Feb. 8-10, in Torino, Italy, in the 500 and the 2,000-meter mixed relay. She had never medaled at the senior level before.
“It’s kind of like a stepping stone of what’s going to happen in the next two years and next Olympics,” said Biney, who was born in Accra, Ghana and moved to the United States to be with her father at age 5. “Going to the Olympics was super great, don’t get me wrong, but I also think after the Olympics was even better.”
Earning the world cup podiums, she gushed, “Oh my goodness, I can’t describe it, because it’s just so awesome. My brain is freaking out right now, still. Even getting to the A final, I was just over the moon, super happy, and then all of sudden, I’m getting the bronze medal on the world cup stage.
“My brain is like, ‘What is going on?’ So, also the fact is if I can take a huge break and then not skate full time, and then still be able to do really well, I just think, ‘What’s going to happen in the next three years when I’m doing it full time?’ So I’m just really excited for the next three years.”
Her immediate goals are to break the world record in the 500 (42.335 seconds, set by Elise Christie of Great Britain in Utah), win a world championship in the 500 and get into the A finals in world cups.
With usually only four people in the 500-meter race, Biney said, “you’re literally one person away from being on the podium. It’s so close, yet so far. That saying is literally so true when it comes to short track being in the A final.”
In Torino, Suzanne Schulting of the Netherlands fell right in front of Biney, who was cruising in fourth place, “and I had the bronze medal,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is great.’ When she fell, I had to be careful and be stable. All I had to do is just follow and not make any stupid mistakes in order to get me disqualified. I was like, ‘OK, OK, OK, be calm…’ In like 20 seconds I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! Yes! I got it!’"
Biney’s final competition this season is next month’s senior world championships in Sofia, Bulgaria.
While there are few skaters of African descent worldwide in the sport, Alyson Charles, a 20-year-old from Canada, is grabbing attention. She has earned nine podiums in her first five meets as a short track rookie.
Team USA has had notable African-American female athletes in other winter sports. Debi Thomas won a bronze medal in figure skating in 1988. Vonetta Flowers won a gold medal in bobsled in 2002, while Elana Meyers Taylor has won three Olympic medals in the sport, and Aja Evans, Lauren Gibbs and Lauryn Williams have also added their names to the list of Olympic bobsled medalists over the past two Games.
Olympic gold medalist Shani Davis was the first African-American man to make an Olympic team in speedskating, first in short track and then in long track, and the first to win a gold medal in an individual sport.
“From what I was reading, it seems like the reason why there aren’t that many African-American people in the winter sports is just accessibility and cost,” Jackson said, “because the winter sports are significantly more expensive than the summer sports. For me, I was just very fortunate. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support from people who believed in me."
She considers this her first season racing, “since last year I just kind of jumped right into it.”
Jackson’s goals were to be in the A group at world cups, and from there be top 10. She reached both goals, with two top-10 finishes this season. Earlier this month, Jackson competed in her first world single distances championship, placing 15th in the 500, and she’ll compete in her final world cup of the season on home ice next month.
Next season Jackson hopes to place top five in world cups. Team USA has not won an individual medal at the Winter Games in long track speedskating since 2010.
“I’ve got three more years to work toward rising in the ranks,” said Jackson, who is pursuing an additional degree in computer science through Salt Lake Community College, “and I’m hoping to be one of those individual (Olympic) medalists next time around.”
Jackson, who also has a background in roller derby, plans to go back to Jacksonville, Florida, and play with her team, the New Jack City Rollers, twice in May.
She’ll return to inline competition this summer in an attempt to qualify for the world championships in Barcelona, Spain, and the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru.
But Jackson doesn’t want to spend too much time away from Utah. While inline is fun, she and her fellow inliners have gravitated toward the winter sport because “we see more of a future with speedskating on ice.”
And it has much more visibility, especially during the Games. With both Biney and Jackson on the world stage, more African-American kids will become exposed to speedskating.
Biney said she doesn’t feel like a pioneer. “I just feel like a normal person who is doing what they love.”