GANGNEUNG, South Korea — In a race that’s frenzied and frantic, equally fast and curious, all it takes is a bump sometimes. Short-track speedskating can be rewarding and unforgiving, and Maame Biney will have years to explore the depths of those truths.
First skater across the line? Bump.
Gold medal dreams? Bump.
Years of hard work? Bump.
Incidental contact early in Tuesday’s 500-meter race bumped back Biney’s Olympic dreams by four years as the 18-year-old from Reston, Va., finished fourth in her four-person quarterfinal heat with a time of 44.77 seconds, 1.28 seconds away from advancing into the semifinals.
When it was over, tears welled in Biney’s eyes, and her cheeks soon glistened. In a short race, it’s not always easy to take the long view, but she tried.
“It’s okay. I’ll be fine,” she said, wiping a hand across her face. “I just have to wait four more years to be able to get back into this big stage. I can’t wait till those four years.”
Biney’s Olympics are not over — she will compete in the 1,500, which begins Saturday — but she knew the 500 likely represented her best chance at a PyeongChang podium. She won bronze at the junior world championships this year and nearly swept her 500 heats at the U.S. Olympic trials in December.
Even reaching this stage put Biney’s name in the record books. A Ghana native who moved to the Washington area when she was 5, Biney is the first African American woman to qualify for an American Olympic speedskating team. She was just 17 when she did it.
“I’m still young,” said Biney, who turned 18 last month. “I’ve learned that I just can’t afford to underestimate anyone, and I just have to go out there and do my best.”
The days leading up to the quarterfinals were fine, she said. She had nerves in her opening race of these Olympics, but her second-place finish in Saturday’s heats was good enough to advance into Tuesday’s round of 16.
“I was so ready to go out there and kill it,” she said, “but it’s okay.”
Reliving those 45 seconds, Biney can’t help but think a more experienced skater would have known what to do, would have bounced back from a tiny bump. As the four skaters sprinted off the line, Biney felt contact from the woman next to her, Sofia Prosvirnova, an Olympic Athlete from Russia.
“I don’t usually get bumped in the start, so it was a big shock to me,” she said.
Prosvirnova never broke stride, but Biney fell behind right away, clearly out of rhythm at the first turn and slow to regain her balance and composure on the ice. The race is all of 4½ laps, which gives even the fastest skater little opportunity to make up a deficit.
“I feel like for more experienced racers, they get back in the rhythm very quickly,” she said. “But since I’m so young and don’t have that much experience, I’ve got to figure out how to get into that rhythm quickly.”
Starts are usually Biney’s forte. She shoots off the line and accelerates like few others. Losing the race in the opening strides is especially frustrating, and she was bracing herself for an earful from Anthony Barthell, head coach of the U.S. short-track team, who is always encouraging Biney to simply skate her race.
“He would rather me be myself and get dead last than get dead last and not be myself,” Biney said.
She couldn’t remember the last time she had a start quite like Tuesday’s, one she’s certain never to forget — a stinging memory that she hopes will propel her back into the Olympic 500-meter race four years down the road.
“It’s just been so long, but I think it’s good for me,” Biney said of her poor start, “because that means I have things to work on. It’s been a good experience, and I can’t wait for World Cups and the next Olympics to do well.”
The U.S. men’s 5,000-meter relay team also had a disappointing night Tuesday. Just four months after setting a world record, the American squad failed to qualify for the Olympic finals. The United States finished third in a four-team heat with a time of 6:36.867 — 2.001 seconds away from qualifying for the finals and almost eight seconds off the team’s world-record time.
“We had some good moments in there,” said Thomas Hong, a 20-year-old skater from Laurel, Md. “We were in the mix for a very long time, I think. . . . We gave it our best shot. Our best was not good enough today.”
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