But when Team USA speed skater Maame Biney stepped up to the starting line for short track events in Gangneung, South Korea — with world-class opponents at her hip, an arena filled with screaming fans from around the globe standing above and a medal podium at stake — it was tough to recall.
“Just remember to be yourself,” five-time Olympic medalist and Team USA gymnastics phenom Simone Biles told Biney before the Olympic trials.
“At first I was like, ‘of course I’m going to be myself, that’s not going to be hard,'” Biney told UPI. “But I now totally understand what she meant by ‘you have to be yourself throughout all of this.’ It was definitely hard in the beginning, but now I’m back on track.”
It wasn’t like Biney to be nudged at the starting line. It was definitely not like her to finish last. Tears on her constantly smiling face appeared, like a thirst-driven mirage of a fountain in the depths of the Sahara.
That’s how the 18-year-old ended her first Olympic run. Biney backed her 500m quarterfinal, looking at the skates of Russian Sofia Prosvirnova and China’s Kexin Fan and Yutong Han. She raced again, but didn’t make it past Heat 5 in the 1500m. The 500 was her main draw.
“That race…I wasn’t expecting it to go that way,” Biney said. “Honestly I’m kind of glad it did because I knew that I had to work on my starts in order to be fast and get off the line quicker than any girl in the whole entire world. So when I get back home, I’m going to really work on my starts and even do some starts with some guys so that I can beat them or come close to beating them so I can be faster than the girls.”
She uses the word “underestimated” when talking about her opponents at the Winter Games, specifically Prosvirnova. The Russian speed skater gave Biney a bump during the race, knocking her off rhythm. Prosvirnova won the quarterfinal.
“I usually don’t ever underestimate anyone,” Biney said. “I just really think the nerves got the best of me. What I meant by that was, I wasn’t really expecting Sofia to beat me at the start because I’m usually a little faster than her at the start. So I underestimated what she could do.”
“I’m never going to do that again.”
Biney became the first black woman to qualify for a U.S. Olympic speed skating team in December.
The Ghana native moved to the United States at just 5-years-old to be with her dad. Her mother and brother still live in West Africa.
At the trials, she first beat Olympians Lana Gehring, Jessica Kooreman and Katherine Reutter-Adamek in the first of two 500m finals. She sealed her journey to the Pyeongchang Winter Games with another victory in a second final.
Biney celebrated by pumping her arms in excitement. Her exuberance threw her off balance and made her fall on the ice, endearing her with fans.
“I feel like it’s a cherry on top, because it means young kids out there and adults out there in the world are saying, ‘oh my goodness, if she can do it, then I can definitely do that and break some more barriers. I’m really happy to have that role of being the first African American woman to make the short track speed skating team.”
Biney also picked up a big sponsorship when she joined Team Kellogg’s. She said she is honored to be in the role and doesn’t mind having few bowls of their chocolate Frosted Flakes.
As for that start, it’s something that won’t soon vacate Biney’s brain. She’ll have thousands of days to think about it before getting a shot to redeem herself.
Yes, it was a physical let down. But also mental. She wasn’t Maame in that moment.
“Definitely mental is a huge part of it because if you think one person is going to be able to beat you, then that person is going to beat you because you are holding off of what you can potentially do. The physical aspect of it would be when you are running on the ice. The fastest runner with the best technique will be the first person off of that block and then it goes on from there.”
It didn’t take long for Biney’s tears to dry after the disappointing finish. After all, she had her smiling father to calm her nerves. Kweku magnetized NBC’s camera crew while holding funny signs with slogans like “Kick Some Hiney Biney.”
“He was like, whatever happens in this race, I want you to know that I still love you and that you are always going to be my daughter,” Biney said. “He said that before the Olympic trials too. I’m really happy he said that. Because I kinda forget that because I always want him to be proud. I feel like me doing this made him even prouder. No matter what my result was.”