Speed Skater Maame Biney Is Blazing Her Own Way To The Winter Olympics
She’s not afraid to be first.
As soon as Maame Biney joins our Zoom interview, she greets me with a kind smile, her warmth swiftly permeating the screen. In person — or as close to “in person” as anyone gets now — she is friendly, lighthearted, and relaxed. But the second she has to compete, she says, she’s single-minded. This Olympics, the speed skater tells me, “I’m focused on running my own race.”
Biney, 22, is heading into her second Olympics in 2022, after finishing fourth in the quarter finals for short-track speed skating in the 2018 PyeongChang Games. With experience behind her, she’s intentional about both her physical and mental preparation for Beijing. “I write in my skating journal,” she tells me. ”I have been using the Headspace app recently to help me get into the right mindset.” She says she separates skating from her real life, leaning into her non-skating friends to help keep her grounded. “I am forever grateful for them, because I know that if I did not have them it would be a more difficult road,” she says.
With speed skating, mindset is a powerful asset. The sport entails racing on a 400-meter track while wearing skates with 16- to 19-inch blades. Each heat consists of two skaters competing side by side, but they are also vying for the fastest time overall (similar to track and field, but with the added difficulty of ice and skates). The sport requires balance, precision, stamina, and unwavering confidence. When I speak with Biney’s coach, Simon Cho, I joke that I may have to try the sport out for myself. He kindly shuts me down. “Maame makes it look much easier than it is,” he says. “It’s extremely difficult.”
“In real life Maame is the sweetest girl, but in speed skating you cannot be a nice person,” Cho tells me, “you have to be willing to kill for it.”
That mental resilience is crucial, because beyond the “ordinary” pressures of being an Olympian, Biney also has the honor and weight of being the first Black woman and youngest competitor to make the U.S. Olympic short-track speed skating team, when at age 17 she qualified for the 2018 PyeongChang Games. (She was joined in PyeongChang by Erin Jackson, who qualified for long-track speed skating a few short weeks after Biney.) Though an extraordinary feat, being a “first” didn’t come without its pressures. “It took a toll on a 17-year-old who has never been in the spotlight before, and never experienced anything like this before. I wanted to make the Black community proud. I wanted to make everyone proud,” she says.
When she was 5 years old, Biney moved to the United States from Ghana, where she was born. After the move, her father enrolled her into figure skating classes in order to help her acclimate, but Biney quickly found her passion in speed skating, where her strength and agility set her apart. She says the sport helped her build a sense of home and community in a new place, especially as a young Black girl adjusting to a new country and culture. “[Speed skating] helped me realize that I was human and that color doesn’t define me,” Biney says.
I want to inspire Black athletes and Black girls to do whatever that they want to do.
Biney acknowledges that, at times, she has experienced discrimination in speed skating, but overall the sport has largely been her safe haven. “When I was younger, there was some discrimination, but I don't remember it. My dad protected me from that. He would say, ‘You are not here to make friends, go out there and show them who you are.’”
Given the dearth of Black athletes in the Winter Olympics, Biney’s domination in the sport is important. At the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, just 1.45% of athletes identified as Black: that’s just 43 Black athletes out of nearly 3,000 competitors, according to BuzzFeed News. These numbers — surprisingly — actually represent a notable change in Black representation at the Winter Olympic Games. According to Olympic historian Bill Mallon, as cited in The Outline, between 1976 and 2018, only 22 African American athletes competed in the Winter Olympics. Given these numbers, Biney is not only making history, but could be part of a new era for the Olympic Games, one in which Black athletes are increasingly centered as part of the fabric of winter sports.
“A lot of Black people do not have access to this sport, or to the resources to pursue this sport to the best of their ability,” Biney says. “I am very fortunate to do this sport. I want to inspire Black athletes and Black girls to do whatever that they want to do.”
She’s inspiring athletes, girls, and some pretty big names, too: Recently, the speed skater was featured as part of the launch of SKIMS’ official Team USA loungewear line. On Jan. 13, Biney was one of six athletes featured in Kim Kardashian West’s Instagram post announcing the collab. As of Jan. 28, the post has 1.4 million likes.
“It’s surreal to work with her and then see her on Kim Kardashian’s Instagram,” Cho says. “It makes me happy to even be a small part of her journey.”
Leading into Beijing, that journey involves an exciting new step. In partnership with Red Bull, Biney and Cho have been using new technology to refine her technique and approach. By placing sensors on Biney’s suit and blades, they are able to track, record, and replay Biney’s movements on the ice in 3D. It gives Biney a deeper understanding of where she can grow and improve. “Watching videos [of myself] is very different from the technology that Red Bull provided. Watching all of the sensors on your body tells you how you are moving,” she says. This kind of detailed feedback allows Biney and Cho to make small, powerful corrections to Biney’s form. In the future, Biney hopes that the use of this technology becomes more widespread — even if it means more competition. “I hope that more athletes gain access as well,” she says.
Cho believes Biney’s unique ability to dig deep during competition is what will set her apart at the Olympics. “I have seen her come up with superhuman performances at times. She treats races like fight-or-flight experiences and she is there to fight every time,” he says. Biney’s mental strength paired with her athleticism and kinesthetic intelligence make her a force to be reckoned with in her sport, he says. Still, he’s conscious of not overwhelming his skater. “I don’t want to add any unnecessary pressure on Maame with any certain expectations,” he says. But his faith in her is absolute. “If she just puts her mind to it, she’s gonna get it.”
And Biney, for her part, remains focused, leaning into her sense of inner balance to help her maintain her outward equilibrium. Despite the pressure of the world stage, the reality of being a “first,” and just competing in general, Biney isn’t intimidated. “This Olympics,” she says, “I’m skating for myself.”