GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Maame Biney never had much chance in her 1,500-meter qualifying heat Saturday evening. She knew that as well as anyone and laughed about it afterward. She just wanted to get this race over with. Her 18-year-old legs were, as she put it, “exploding.”
So when she slid into last place in her 1,500 heat, then officially out of competition in her first Olympic Games, she smiled.
“I feel very good,” she said through that endless grin, which has stolen hearts here for two weeks. “Because now I get to eat whatever I want.”
Biney, of Reston, Va., laughed for about 10 seconds, though she was as serious about her impending binge on Korean barbecue as she has been about anything here. These Olympics have been a bonus, an experience largely free of expectations. She is too young, too new, too happy to be here to worry. Four years from now, she almost certainly will carry the hopes of the American women’s short-track team, which has one more chance at a medal in PyeongChang, lest it fails to earn one for the second straight Games.
But now, after falling in the 500-meter quarterfinals Tuesday and in her 1,500 heat Saturday, she can have her barbecue and head to Poland, where she will compete in the world junior championships in a couple weeks. Maybe she will get around to the schoolwork piling up at home. For now, she’s basking in the experience of a lifetime, the coolest moment of which was, of course . . .
“Going on the ‘Today’ show,” Biney said. “That was like the best day ever — one because I didn’t skate that day. But also because it’s the ‘Today’ show!”
Most Olympic athletes would never admit they “wanted to get the race over with.” Only a few more would say they can’t wait to stuff their faces. Biney checked off the other athletes she met in Korea one by one — Chloe Kim, Lindsey Vonn, “like, the curling team, the hockey girls and the hockey guys” — like a teenager hunting celebrities. One Olympic Games has not hardened Biney into a cliched, win-at-all-costs type. It has, however, hardened her notion of what it will take to reach . . . well, what was it called?
“The stand. Podium. Medal thing,” she said to reporters. “Sorry.”
Biney said she noticed the older skaters’ speed and how they build it, and she wants to learn how to skate like that. When she got bumped early in her 500-meter quarterfinal, she didn’t know how to recover. When she gets home, she plans to watch more film to see how the older skaters rediscover their rhythm at times like those. And as for those “exploding” legs she carried in her 1,500-meter heat Saturday, Biney has a plan for those, too.
“I’m going to do a lot more work. I’m not going to stick with what I’m doing,” Biney said. “I’m going to work harder, so next time I can be on the podium hopefully.”
U.S. Speedskating will hope Biney is on the podium then, too. While she was not expected to contend Saturday evening, teammates Jessica Kooreman and Lana Gehring also failed to make it out of their quarterfinal heats.
With one short-track race remaining, the 1,000 meters, the U.S. women have yet to challenge for a medal. Until John-Henry Krueger won silver in the 1,000 meters Saturday night, no American short-track skater had medaled at all. The men have one more chance, too. But neither side has any medal favorites competing in their last races.
“The team’s very, very young,” Gehring said. “Short track is very hard and demanding on the body. It takes years of experience.”
If all goes to plan, Biney will have four more years of experience the next time she touches Olympic ice. She is the most talented of the young U.S. skaters, so talented she earned this Olympic chance long before she or anyone expected her to handle it. Should the women of U.S. Speedskating surge back for 2022 in Beijing, she probably will be the one leading the charge.
“I think that right now we’re kind of getting back on track. We’ve been doing the best we can,” Biney said. “I’m excited for the next four years. Hopefully we can all be on the podium some day, in China — or wherever the Olympics are going to be in eight years.”
Read more Winter Olympics coverage: