Winter Olympics: Who is Speed Skater Maame Biney?

Sports - Deborah Hastings

Before she even steps on the ice in Saturday's opening round of the 500 meters, speed skater Maame Biney has already made Olympic history.

The 18-year-old high school senior is the first black woman to qualify for the U.S. speedskating team. 

And she is charming her way through the Olympic Village in Pyeongchang, South Korea, with her ever-present toothy grin and her infectious, goofy laugh.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Biney gushed about her new iPhone, which she had been coveting for months. Her dad finally gave in.

"I finally got it! It was like a week before we got here, so I'm like, 'Oh my gosh!'"

Biney became a legal adult on Jan. 28, just one more milestone in a life rooted in spirit and strength.

She was born in Ghana and lived there until she was 5. She then moved to Maryland, where her immigrant father, Kweku Biney, lived. He likes to tell journalists that Maame didn't want to go back to Accra, Ghana's capital, after seeing a J.C. Penney store.

Her mother and a younger brother, Nana Kojo, 15, still live in Ghana.

Her introduction to ice skating came when she was 6 and riding in a car with her dad. He saw a rink with a sign reading "Learn to skate." He asked his daughter if she wanted to give it a try.

Sure, she said, despite having no idea what ice skating was. In Ghana, she often says, the job of ice is to cool beer.

Initially, she took up figure skating, but an instructor would later tell her father that she was too fast and too strong for the sport. He suggested speedskating. So Biney strapped on speedskating boots, with their 15.5-inch, flat-bottomed blades.

She's never looked back.

She got up at 5 a.m. and her dad drove her 27 miles to a beginner's class in Washington, D.C. Later, she joined a Rockville club and began competing in local and regional contests.

Her father, a maintenance worker, was her biggest supporter, driving her to lessons and practices and competitions. In December, when a pair of victories in the 500 meters secured her spot on the U.S. Olympic team, her dad was in the stands holding a sign that read "Kick some hiney Biney."

After crossing the finish line, she began clapping and pumping her arms until she lost her balance and fell on the ice, laughing her head off in front of the crowded stands and a gaggle of sports journalists.

For the past seven months, she has been training full-time in Utah. She will compete in the 500- and 1,500-meter races in South Korea. She's better in shorter competition, and her speed off the starting line is impressive.

She is poised to become a media darling in Pyeongchang. Her boisterous personality and constant laughter buoys her teammates and makes her a favorite among journalists seeking interviews.

But she remains a teenage girl, excited about her new phone, looking forward to starting college later this year, and going to her high school prom this spring.

And she's not freaked out in the least about the upcoming games, she said.

“I don’t really feel pressure to be the first to get a medal or anything like that,” she said. “I just want to go out there, do my best and have fun, and experience the Olympics," she told a HuffPo reporter in South Korea. "That’s what I’m here for. I’m here to win, obviously, but also have fun.” 

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