Speedskating’s latest phenom is not what you would expect. At just 18 years old, standing 5 feet 6 inches tall, Maame Biney is the first African American woman to represent the United States in speedskating at a Winter Olympic Games. Under the searing spotlight of the Olympic stage, Maame carries the weight of not only bringing home a medal for the United States, but also representing her home country of Ghana.
For someone who has every reason to feel overwhelmed, Maame shrugs off the pressure, constantly grinning, smiling, and laughing. And, as she navigates her first Olympic experience and prepares for the tough competition of the 500-meter race, it’s clear that she’s capturing the hearts of America as well.
Leaving her mother and other family members behind in Ghana, Maame visited her father in Reston, Virginia when she was five years old. She decided to stay, and subsequently discovered skating. In a previous interview with NBC, Maame told reporters that she and her dad were driving down the road one day when they saw a sign advertising figure skating lessons.
“I started out as a figure skater but went too fast,” she said. Maame transitioned into speedskating with ease due to her love for speed.
Quickly finding her groove, she worked her way up the ranks, becoming one of the top speedskaters in her age group – eventually qualifying for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Seconds after she crossed the finish line during the qualifying round at the Olympic Oval in Utah, the realization of heading to her first Olympics hit her. She was so excited that she tripped over her skates, sending her straight to the ground, grinning the entire way.
As the Olympic games drew near, another athlete might have lost focus with the hype and distraction, but not Maame. Her focus has always been tempered by her family’s sacrifices that got her this far.
“Going to the Olympics means a lot because I know all the sacrifices people have made for me to get to this point,” she said.
When she failed to make her first Junior speedskating team, Maame knew she needed more coaching and high-intensity training. Relocating to Park City, Utah, in July of 2017, she moved in with a host family who drives her back and forth to the Olympic Oval in Kearns, a 40-mile trip each way, for practice every day. Since moving to Utah, Maame has taken a full second off her personal best time in the 500 meters.
Even though she’s excited about her new home and future in Utah (where she hopes to study chemical engineering at the University of Utah in 2018), leaving her dad for the first time was a challenge.
“It was really hard on both of us because we’ve never been apart this long, but it’s worked out,” she said.
Despite the turmoil, Maame kept her eye on skating and found comfort in her wonderful teammates.
“Since it’s such a small sport we’re like a really tight family,” she said.
In addition to the strong local support, another benefit of training in Utah is the close proximity to University of Utah Health, a designated health care provider in the U.S. Olympic National Medical Network. The non-stop training can beat up the body, but athletes also need immediate access to care in case of freak accidents.
While training in late December, Maame was passed by a Belgium speedskater practicing at the oval when a piece of her blade broke, hitting Maame in the face – slicing open her chin and lip.
“I felt something dripping down so I held my chin and there was blood all over.”
She went immediately to the medical team and they sent her to University Hospital where Jared Garlick, MD, one of U of U Health’s plastic surgeons, stitched her up. Maame asked Dr. Garlick how many stitches it took to close the cut and he didn’t know -- he lost count because there were so many.
When asked if she was worried about recovering from the unexpected incident just two months before the biggest competition of her life, Maame shrugged and smiled.
“I knew I was in good hands from the staff and from the U so I wasn’t worried at all,” she said. “I just took a break from skating for two days and then I was back on the ice.”
With the biggest race of her life just a few days away, Maame cannot afford to miss a beat. She’s training every day and remains focused on her mission -- bringing home the gold.
“Winning a medal would mean that much more because it would mean all of the hard work and every sacrifice my dad and I had to make was worth it,” she said.
As Maame takes center stage in her Olympic debut, tune in to cheer her on as she goes for the gold. No matter what happens, Maame is already a champion -- on and off the ice.