Editor’s Note: An LA84 grant to the USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society funded three reporters to attend, report and write stories from the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games in South Korea.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The competition at the 2018 Winter Olympics is serious, but Maame Biney’s contagious laugh can still be heard as she leaves the ice. The happy-go-lucky 18-year-old is only a senior in high school, and she is already an accomplished short track speed skater.
She’s also breaking barriers for future generations. Biney is the first African-American woman to compete in short track speed skating for Team USA.
“Being the first African-American girl on this Olympic team is really awesome because that means that young African-American girls, or any other race for that matter, could go out there, find an ice rink, and try it out,” Biney said. “You never know, you could be the next Olympian.”
Her advice stems from her own start in the sport. Biney was born in Ghana, a fairly snowless region. Growing up in warm, tropical air, Biney wasn’t introduced to snow until she moved to Reston, Virginia at age five. Her move to the United States with her father brought many changes, she said, one of those being her love for the ice.
“We were driving down a street and saw a sign that said learn to skate,” Biney’s father, Kweku told CNN in an interview in February. “I said do you want to try this? And she said yes.” The moment she walked into the rink, her successful career in speed skating began.
Biney continued to race around the track throughout her young life, and won a bronze medal at the 2017 World Junior Short Track Speed Skating Championships. Managing classes and an elite athletic career places a lot of pressure on her, but Biney said she uses positive energy to remain calm. Many of her camera interviews display her smile and laugh. “Laugh until you almost die of laughter…catch your breath…then keep laughing!” Biney’s Twitter profile states.
The skater’s mantra is something her teammates and coaches have enjoyed greatly. “She always comes in light-hearted and ready to train. If she’s having a bad day you can’t really tell, she’s always smiling and she actually uplifts the entire team,” Biney’s coach Anthony Barthell said.
Biney attributes her positive energy to her father. She said it was his selfless actions that allowed her to be a skater, and he has always been her biggest fan. “My dad put his life on hold to let me start my life,” she said.
Biney eventually moved to Salt Lake City to train with the U.S. National Team, and her father still showed up to support his daughter. When she qualified for the Olympic team, it was an emotional day.
“Making it to the Olympics was 100 percent for my dad,” Biney said. “He’s the person who put his hard work into me, and I’m ready to show that off to the world.”
In PyeongChang, Biney took part in the Ladies’ 500-meter event and advanced to the quarterfinal, but her Olympic dream ended there. She was unable to advance to the next round. [Editor’s note: Biney later competed in the 1,500-meter event, but was eliminated in her qualifying heat.] But, she said she counts her Olympic moment as a valuable experience in life, and is already looking to prepare for Beijing in 2022. Plus, her performance had a larger impact beyond her finish.
“I’m breaking barriers,” Biney said. “I’m just embracing that. I’m surrounded by people who don’t treat me any differently, so I’m just being me and I’m going to try my best.”