GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Maame Biney didn’t know where her father was sitting or what sort of sign he was holding up when she stepped onto the ice for her Olympic debut at the 12,000-seat Gangneung Ice Arena on Saturday night. Nor did she realize that Vice President Pence was in the audience, seated with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
As a North Korea cheering section dressed in red sang like a choir and South Koreans in white waved their appreciation, Biney, the 18-year-old from Reston, Va., was sheer focus, thinking only of the plan she had mapped out with U.S. national coach Anthony Barthell.
Behind a strong start and a terrific block, Biney sped to a second-place finish in an opening-round heat of the 500-meter short-track speedskating race, ensuring her spot in Tuesday’s quarterfinal round of 16 and, possibly, an Olympic medal beyond.
Only then did Biney reveal the sheer joy she takes in this wild winter sport, erupting in a smile that filled her face.
“Jeez, that was nerve-racking!” said Biney, the first African American woman to qualify for a U.S. Olympic speedskating team and the youngest member of the sport’s 2018 U.S. Olympic delegation. “My legs were like ‘Eee-yowww!’ But it was good! It was good! . . . I’m just ready to go out there Tuesday and let it rip.”
Having secured her spot among the final 16, Biney hopes to race three more times Tuesday (quarterfinals, semifinals and the ultimate A final), when the medals will be settled.
For Biney to be in the mix at all is one of the more remarkable stories of the 2018 Winter Games.
Born in Ghana, she came to the United States at age 5 to visit her father, who had moved to Maryland in search of greater opportunity. And she quickly fell in love with all she saw around her and chose to stay, rather than return home to her mother.
On a lark, her father, Kweku, enrolled her in figure skating lessons at SkateQuest. But the instructor soon realized that Biney, in her little purple jumpsuit, was considerably faster and more dynamic on the ice than the other children. So she recommended speedskating, and her father complied, eager to keep his daughter occupied.
Biney progressed so quickly at the Dominion Speedskating Club and Fort Dupont Ice Arena that she had a decision to make as the 2018 Winter Olympics neared. She seized it, relocating to Utah before finishing her studies at South Lakes High to train with the U.S. national team in the small town of Kearns, while living with a host family in Park City.
Overnight, it seemed, she and her father were flying to South Korea for her Olympic debut, while friends and former classmates at South Lakes rose at 5 a.m. to watch her race.
An Olympic sport since the 1992 Albertville Games, short-track speedskating is an extreme indoor discipline — particularly in the 500 meters, which demands a fast start and all-out sprint to the finish. Just 4 1 /2 laps long, it is over almost as soon as it starts. Yet in that span, carnage and chaos can reign.
Saturday’s preliminary round — eight heats of four skaters each — had a high attrition rate, with several skaters losing their edge and skidding into the padded boards. And when a South Korean athlete was in the field, the shrieks and cheers in the arena were deafening.
None of this rattled Biney. She was placed in a challenging group that included China’s Fan Kexin, who has won five of the last seven world championships at the distance, and crowd favorite Kim Alang, 22, of South Korea, a member of Korea’s gold medal 3,000-meter relay team at the Sochi Olympics.
But Biney propelled herself into the fray, settled in at second in the high-speed, single-file circuit and simply refused to let Kim, close behind, overtake from the shorter inside lane or dislodge her from her spot.
“The plan was to block [Kim] as much as I could,” Biney said. “And the last lap if she wanted to pass me, she had to go on the outside and not the inside. I blocked pretty well; it was the best block I’ve ever done.”
Now comes a day to rest and recover, then a few days to practice her starts for what she hopes will be a finish on the medal podium.
With her dream so close at hand, Biney, who will also compete in the 1,500 meters, said it’s time to dig out the fierce alter-ego she invented when she was 10. Her name is Anna. Anna Digger.
“You’re definitely going to see her: Anna, my alter-ego,” Biney promised. “I’m ready to go out there and kill it!”
Later Saturday, South Korea won its first medal of the Olympics, a gold by Lim Hyo-jun in the men’s 1,500 meters with an Olympic record 2:10.485. Sjinkie Knegt of the Netherlands took silver, and Semen Elistratov of the Olympic Athletes from Russia took bronze. The 1,500 is a test of stamina and energy, with all 13½ lap heats contested in the same day.
None of the three Americans in the field reached the final race.