Fast track to stardom

Fueled by joy, 17-year-old speedskater Maame Biney races from Ghana to Virginia to Utah and soon to PyeongChang

Fast track to stardom

Fueled by joy, 17-year-old speedskater Maame Biney races from Ghana to Virginia to Utah and soon to PyeongChang
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Photos by Jonathan Newton

The sun hadn’t fully poked over the Wasatch mountains when Maame Biney came bounding through the lobby of the Utah Olympic Oval, her braids bobbing and a smile enveloping most of her youthful face.

Others were still wiping the sleep from their eyes, as the young speedskater went through her morning routine: exercise bike, stretching, jogging, talking Kardashians, calculating the days until her 18th birthday.

This is the last semester of Biney’s senior year of high school, but there was no schoolwork on tap. Instead, she’d spend the day like she does most others: training for the upcoming Winter Olympics some 2,000 miles away from her home in Northern Virginia, where her dad and classmates live, and some 7,000 miles away from where she was born in Accra, Ghana, where her mother and brother still reside.

Maame (pronounced Mah-MAY) Biney, 17, is the first African American woman to qualify for an American Olympic speedskating team, and at the PyeongChang Games she promises to be one of the most improbable, unforgettable and charismatic members of the U.S. Olympic team. Her journey to the Winter Games is like few others. Her father often jokes that in Ghana, ice is used solely to keep beer cold, so his daughter’s chosen pursuit might draw some confused looks back in the country of her birth. Even in the United States, short-track speedskating is a niche sport that pokes its head into the mainstream every four years.

But when the PyeongChang Games begin next month in South Korea, the spotlight will find Biney. NBC will make her a focal point in the Olympics’ opening week, certain her story will connect with American viewers: the youngest woman on the U.S. short-track team, a possible medal contender who can connect with youth, with African Americans, with sports fans and, well, with everyone really.

“It hasn’t set in yet,” Biney says, “and I don’t think it’ll set in until I’m, like, there or until the Games are done. Things that are this big, it takes me awhile because I just can’t believe it. It’s crazy — I’m going to the Olympics!”

She broke into a fit of laughter, which would surprise no one. For Biney, a smile is her default, and she became a breakout star of sorts at the U.S. Olympic trials last month when she giggled uncontrollably through a nationally televised interview.

“I’ve actually never seen Maame in a bad mood,” said Anthony Barthell, the U.S. short-track coach.

At a recent practice, Barthell and Biney exchanged banter between training laps, and the coach likened her to Princess Fiona from the animated film “Shrek.”

“Fiona was a princess, and she was a beast,” he joked.

Soon, the coach was holding his stopwatch, and Biney and her U.S. teammates were zipping around the track at speeds topping 30 mph. It all quickly became a blur — the lightning-fast racers, sure, but also Biney’s bright future and her atypical past, her close-knit bond with her father and of course her talent and practically unmatched potential.

A visit that never ended

Kweku Biney grew up a world far removed from ice rinks and winter sports or even winter. In Accra, he played soccer barefoot, kicking around an orange, perhaps, or a sock that’d been stuffed. He didn’t have a television and learned about the Western world from newspapers and magazines.

He says he left Ghana nearly 35 years ago. He didn’t have much money and says he crossed the Sahara desert by hitchhiking and walking, a six-month journey that eventually brought him to Europe.

“I was just fearless,” Kweku says today. “I could go anywhere by myself. I wasn’t afraid of anything.”

He always knew his final destination, and when he’d saved enough, Kweku boarded his first airplane, bound for the United States. He settled in Maryland around 1985 and says he married Biney’s mother in the United States, but she later returned to Ghana, where Biney was born in 2000.

When she was 5 years old, Kweku invited his daughter to visit him in the United States. Less than two miles from getting picked up at Dulles International Airport, a young Biney burst into tears, begging her father to take her back. He pulled over to console her, but a few miles later, she was crying again. She was still in tears when they arrived in Wheaton, Md., where Kweku lived at the time. The two didn’t even get out of the car.

Kweku Biney said of daughter Maame, “The very first day she got on the ice, I was like, ‘Ooh, what did I get myself into?’ ” (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

“We went straight into J.C. Penney,” he recalled. “As soon as we got in that store, she saw the big store, she started running around, from aisle to aisle. She says, ‘Daddy, I like this one. No, no, no — I don’t like that one, I like this one!’ ”

There was nothing like the giant department store back in Accra, and by Day 2 in the United States, Biney insisted she wouldn’t return to Ghana. Weighing the opportunities and educational benefits, Kweku said, his family made the difficult decision to let her remain in the United States.

Biney’s mother, Gina, who runs a salon in Ghana, could not be reached, and Kweku offers few details on the family split beyond that it wasn’t always easy. Biney has few memories of her childhood in Ghana and says she often misses not having her mother nearby.

“It was really hard,” she said, “and it is still kind of hard to deal with the fact that my mother’s not here to support or experience this with my dad and I. . . . I’m a girl, and my dad’s a guy. He doesn’t really get some of the things that I go through, and I can’t really talk to him about certain things because it’s awkward.”

But those who’ve watched Biney grow and mature, both on the ice and off, say that she and her father share a special bond. And he essentially launched an Olympic career, even if he had no idea he was doing so, when a dozen years ago, he pointed out a sign on the side of the road.

“Things that are this big, it takes me awhile because I just can’t believe it,” Maame Biney said. “It’s crazy — I’m going to the Olympics!” (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
‘Very much an original’

“We were driving down this street right here — Sunset Hills Road,” Kweku, 58, said one recent afternoon, chatting not far from his home in Reston and excitedly poking a finger in the air. “I think it was one day after work. I saw the sign in front of the rink. It said, ‘Learn to skate.’ I asked her, ‘Maame, you want to try this?’ ”

Biney had been in the United States for less than a year and had no idea what ice skating was, but she eagerly agreed. A week or two later, her father dropped her off at SkateQuest ice rink for her first figure skating class.

“The very first day she got on the ice, I was like, ‘Ooh, what did I get myself into?’ ” Kweku recalled. “I thought this girl was going to fall down, break open her head and blood all over the place. But you know, that didn’t happen.”

Though Biney took to the ice right away, she wasn’t a perfect fit for the beginners’ class. An instructor explained to Kweku that his daughter was moving too fast for figure skating and suggested they seek out a speedskating class instead. They were directed toward a beginners’ program in Washington, which later helped spawn DC-ICE, a nonprofit aimed at introducing the sport to inner city youth that met every Saturday morning in the District.

For the Bineys, that meant setting an alarm for 5 a.m. and making the 27-mile trip to Fort Dupont Ice Arena before sunrise.

“The wind in my face, breezing past me. Oh, man, it feels amazing,” Biney said. (Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

Those early classes were run by Nathaniel Mills, a three-time Olympian who was immediately struck by Biney’s big personality, if not her palpable athletic potential. She was still learning to maintain her balance and was a tad clumsy on the ice. But she showed up every Saturday morning, wearing bright colors and a brighter smile.

“She’s very much an original. She’s her own person, for sure,” Mills said. “That was apparent at a very early age.”

Her talent and potential didn’t emerge until she threw herself deeper into the sport, moving to a club in Rockville and spending more time each week on the ice. She started refining her technique and participating in local and regional competitions.

Kweku works in maintenance for a company near their Reston home. He racked up thousands of miles on his odometer and thousands of dollars in bills for coaching and ice time. But he never missed practices, often showing up early to help prep the rink and staying late to pepper the coaches with questions.

“For me, it was very, very hard. It was a long journey,” he said. “I had to sacrifice so many things. The most important thing was always my pocketbook. . . . But to me, it wasn’t a problem. I’m not too concerned about that. If I have it, I just spend it on her.”

Biney has come to understand only recently what it meant for father to build so much of their life around her speedskating: their weekends, their family budget, their future.

“I’m like, ‘Holy cow, I have taken my dad for granted for at least five years. I need to not do that,’ ” she said. “Why? Why would he spend so much money on a sport where you don’t know what’s going to happen? You can break an ankle in a moment’s notice, or you could not make the team. Why would my dad spend all that money for this moment?”

The answer is twofold: Kweku says he saw the joy that speedskating brought his daughter, and as she grew in the sport, he began to understand her potential. Racing for the Dominion Speedskating Club, she began to raise her profile. Last year, she won bronze at the junior world championships, and the Olympics suddenly seemed possible.

In speedskating, elite athletes spend six or seven days a week on the ice. Many travel to South Korea for training. Biney was still a full-time high school student, and the family knew she needed more ice time to make the PyeongChang Games.

Following her junior year at South Lakes High in Reston, she and her father met with officials from Fairfax County Public Schools to explore their options. Biney was hoping to relocate to Kearns, a small community about 10 miles southwest of Salt Lake City where the U.S. national team trains. She was excited to learn she could take her final year of classes online and move to Utah full time. But for a girl who had never been to a sleepover party, that meant leaving her father.

“I didn’t know how I was going to feel letting her go,” Kweku said. In those first few days apart, he recalls hearing some noise and yelling into an empty house, “Maame, what are you doing?”

“I forgot she was gone,” he said.

Biney has been living with a host family the past seven months in Park City. She calls her father daily, and during practices she’ll often search the empty bleachers for her father’s attentive gaze.

“But he’s never there, unfortunately,” she said.

Kweku Biney with Maame and her younger brother, Nana, in Ghana in 2004. Maame’s mother and brother remain in Ghana. (Family photo)
Maame learned to skate at a rink in Reston when she was 5. (Family photo)
Kweku Biney with Maame and her younger brother, Nana, in Ghana in 2004. Maame’s mother and brother remain in Ghana. RIGHT: Maame learned to skate at a rink in Reston when she was 5. (Family photo)
Just getting started

Since she got her first taste of it as a shaky 5-year-old wobbling on skates, Biney has never quite gotten over the speed. The sensation she feels flying around the oval is unlike anything else.

“The wind in my face, breezing past me. Oh, man, it feels amazing. . . . It’s like when it’s a hot day outside and you just get the cold breeze on your face, it feels like that,” she said, “but 100 times better because you’re skating.”

She’s explosive off the starting line and can accelerate as quickly as some of the fastest men. She’ll compete in the 500- and the 1,500-meter races in PyeongChang — with her father looking on from the stands — but knows her best bet will be at the shorter distance. At the U.S. trials, she nearly swept the 500-meter races and posted a personal-best time of 43.161 seconds.

Coaches are excited by the potential that lies beyond these Olympics. Biney just recently started doing weight training, and her technique has a lot of room for growth. In some ways, these Olympics are her ground floor. Her athletic peak might be four, or even eight, years away.

If she has a secret weapon, it’s the exuberance she brings to the ice. As she puts it, “having a day without laughter is not a good day.”

“That’s obviously something you can’t coach or teach or instill,” said Mills, her youth coach. “That reservoir of joy she has is absolutely the thing that’s allowed her to get as far as she’s gotten with all the demands of the sport. And I think it’s the thing that will support her becoming one of the best short-track speedskaters that’s ever come out of the United States, as long as she can stay healthy.”

Biney doesn’t yet have a cellphone or a driver’s license. She turns 18 in a week and is applying to colleges. She’d love to attend school next fall somewhere nearby that would allow her to continue training full time with the national team.

She doesn’t necessarily crave the attention the Olympics might bring but likes the idea that she might be an inspirational figure, perhaps to young black girls or to a nation of dreamers halfway around the world.

She says she talks to her family in Ghana once a week or so, but she hasn’t been back to visit since 2014. Almost all of her childhood memories are from her time in the United States, but she feels connected to both countries.

“I was born in Ghana, so I am Ghanaian,” she said. “But I identify myself as American, because I’m here to represent America and do great things for America.”

As the Olympics draw closer, the daily practices have become more intense. The skaters’ legs burn after several laps around the oval, and the entire group is constantly teetering between tears and laughter, buoyed by jokes and teasing.

“Seven laps, Maame!” Barthell barked late in a recent practice, challenging her to keep pace with some of her male teammates. “And if you get dropped, guess what? You’ve got to do them by yourself next time.”

Biney couldn’t help herself. She burst into laughter. It’s that carefree attitude that carried her to the Winter Games, that has her positioned for the spotlight and perhaps a medal podium.

“I just hope to have fun and not overstress about my results or how I’m going to do or what everyone’s going to think,” she said. “I tend to do that, and it’s not good. I just hope to have fun and enjoy my Olympic experience.”

Credits: Story by Rick Maese. Photos by Jonathan Newton. Video by Ashleigh Joplin. Designed by Brianna Schroer.