By Yasmine Jumaa
Capital News Service
Eighteen-year-old Maame Biney of Reston is breaking ice, and records, as the first African-American woman to qualify for the U.S. Olympic short-track speedskating team after two 500-meter victories at her December trials.
Born in Ghana, Biney came to the U.S. when she was 5 to visit her father, Kweku, and never left. It didn't take long before Biney was drawn to an ice rink, after her father pointed out a sign that advertised figure skating classes.
"We were driving down this street right here – Sunset Hills Road," Kweku Biney told The Washington Post. "I saw the sign in front of the rink. It said, 'Learn to skate.' I asked her, 'Maame, you want to try this?'"
Biney jumped at the opportunity. She was so fast the instructor suggested she try speedskating.
Biney started in Kids on Ice, a beginner speedskating program in Washington. That meant the Bineys had to wake up at 5 a.m. to make it to the Fort Dupont Ice Arena by 6 a.m. The practices were led by three-time Olympian Nathaniel Mills, who said he was in awe of Maame Biney's dedication.
"She wasn't deterred by the fact that she was taking up a difficult sport," Mills told Capital News Service. "She came to the rink every Saturday morning eager to learn."
Mills, who now runs DC Inner City Excellence, a year-round skating-based youth development program, said Biney's passion and perseverance distinguish her from other skaters.
"She's more explosive of a skater than many of her peers in the United States, and her tenacity as a competitor also sets her apart," Mills said. "Her own drive, her father's sacrifices and her love of skating and competing are the three biggest factors to any athlete's success – and Maame's got all three."
Mills said Biney's father played a significant role in his daughter's success, putting "every penny he made into her career and into her opportunities."
Biney is the youngest woman on the U.S. short-track team. At this year's games, she is up against competitors who have the home turf advantage: 21 of South Korea's 26 winter gold medals have come from short-track speedskating.
Biney will compete in the 500- and 1,500-meter races. She has an upper hand at the shorter distance since setting a personal record at the Olympic trials of 43.161 seconds in the 500-meter race.
This is just the beginning for Biney, Mills said.
"I think the confidence that came with her performance at the trials, coupled with the experience she's going to get at these games, will lead to her being among the favorites in the next Olympics in Beijing, China," Mills said. "She'll be one of the marquee athletes because her personality is real and her talent is next level."
Biney has garnered fans across the country and even the world. It's because she's so relatable, Mills said.
"I know who she is and what she's doing means a lot to a whole lot of people that identify themselves by their nation's state of Ghana, or by being a woman, or because of her skin color, or being from Northern Virginia," Mills said. "Maame's pretty easy to root for."
According to her profile on the Team USA website, Biney is wrapping up her senior year of high school through online courses and plans to study chemical engineering in college. At South Lakes High School in Reston, Biney is best known for her happy-go-lucky demeanor.
"She is so funny and takes everything so positively," Biney's former classmate Kriti Shukla said. "She is the most open and happy person in the class."