Maame Biney competes at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 13, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.
Maame Biney is done with being comfortable.
The short track speedskater the world got to know in 2018 as an effervescent 18-year-old making her Olympic debut in PyeongChang is now 21, and she’s as vivacious as ever. But with an Olympic year looming, she also has a plan.
“My focus, well, I’m trying to have my focus on being uncomfortable, and bringing that theme to everything — my racing skills, my speed, stuff like that,” she said. “That’s a good place for my mind to be right now. Be uncomfortable and go for it.”
That was the plan that Biney took into the most recent U.S. nationals, with great success. She won titles in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters and claimed the women’s overall championship last weekend at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns, Utah.
Her intent going in was just as it is for this coming season: Getting out of her comfort zone.
But what exactly does that entail?
“So, I’m a sprinter, and so when I’m in the 1,500 it’s a pretty slow race in the beginning then you start to go faster, so what I’d typically do was wait in the back and not do anything, let the people in front fight it out then go and try to pass the last couple laps and hope for the best kind of thing,” she explained. “But this competition in the 1,000 and 1,500 I was like, ‘I need to race from the front because that’s what the girls internationally are doing.’ I need to be able to race from the front and block and pass and move around during the race, not come from the back then pass and do the typical thing I did. I think I achieved that semi-OK. I definitely need some work, but I’m excited.”
Biney vaulted into the spotlight when she made the Olympic team at 17, becoming the first Black woman to qualify in speed skating for the U.S. at the Olympic Games. Erin Jackson followed shortly after, qualifying in long track. A native of Ghana who came to the U.S. at 5 years old, Biney also became just the second African-born athlete to represent the U.S. at the Winter Games. Shortly after PyeongChang, where she finished 14th in the 500 and 31st in the 1,500, she became the first U.S. woman to win a world junior championship with a title in the 500.
Biney’s personality, including her ubiquitous smile, in addition to her history-making storyline, helped make her a media favorite in PyeongChang. She admits it was fun, but also a bit overwhelming.
“My personality, I love people and I love talking and I love being around people, but I need my moment,” she said. “I need a time and place to recover and I just felt like when everything was going on during Trials and into the Games, obviously, it was so cool because I couldn’t believe I was in the spotlight, but at the same time I kind of wished I wasn’t. It was from December (2017) all the way into February or even March and it was a lot. I didn’t know how to deal with it. And no one in my circle or my family knew how to deal with it because no one had ever been in that position. Going into this next season I think I’m going to be able to say OK, maybe not right now, definitely later, but I need this time for me now.”
Biney has also learned how to recognize what she needs as an athlete as she’s gotten older and found the voice to communicate that to those around her. Her body’s not the same as it was when she was 17 or 18, she said, and she’s more in tune with her training and what she needs to succeed.
“Being able to talk to my coaches and communicate what I need and how to make me the best skater I can be has been difficult because I grew up in an environment where the coach tells you to do something, you do it, no questions asked,” she said. “Fortunately I found my voice and now I’m like, ‘OK, coach, or whoever, this isn’t working for me so can we change my program so I’m able to still succeed but also train hard at the same time.’ I think that’s how I’ve changed since the world met me. Sometimes you have to go through tough things to figure out what you want.”
Off the ice, Biney is still figuring things out. The University of Utah student started as a chemical engineering major, then switched to information systems.
“Apparently I like to bounce around,” she said. “Now I’m in biology. Hopefully, maybe, it’ll go better, but who knows?”
With the 2020-21 season, shortened as it was, now over, Biney will have a month off the ice. In her down time, she likes to watch TV and feed her creative side with paint-by-numbers and coloring books.
“I don’t know how to paint, I’m not very artistic, so I get those so that I can make myself feel better like I can definitely paint, even though I can’t,” she said.
Then, it’ll be back to work with Beijing on the horizon.
“I know every Olympics is different, but because I was young and the fact that I’ve already done it, I think I should be able to use that experience,” Biney said. “I have a lot more insight into what should be happening or what I should expect of myself going into 2022 and I’m really excited about that.”