Bounding through the lobby of the Utah Olympic Oval came the young speedskater, her braids bobbing and a smile enveloping most of her youthful face.
Her morning routine: exercise bike, stretching, jogging, talking Kardashians, calculating the days until her 18th birthday.
This is the last semester of Maame (pronounced Mah-MAY) Biney’s senior year of high school, but she’s spending the day like she does most others: training for the upcoming Winter Olympics some 2,000 miles away from her home in Northern Virginia, where her dad and classmates live, and some 7,000 miles away from where she was born in Accra, Ghana, where her mother and brother still reside.
Biney, 17, is the first African American woman to qualify for an American Olympic speedskating team, and at the PyeongChang Games she promises to be one of the most improbable, unforgettable and charismatic members of the U.S. Olympic team. Her journey to the Winter Games is like few others. Her father often jokes that in Ghana, ice is used solely to keep beer cold, so his daughter’s chosen pursuit might draw some confused looks back in the country of her birth. Even in the United States, short-track speedskating is a niche sport that pokes its head into the mainstream every four years.
For Biney, a smile is her default, and she became a breakout star of sorts at the U.S. Olympic trials last month when she giggled uncontrollably through a nationally televised interview.
At the Olympics, she’ll be the youngest woman on the U.S. short-track team, a possible medal contender who can connect with youth, with African Americans, with sports fans and, well, with everyone really.
At a recent practice, Barthell and Biney exchanged banter between training laps, and the coach likened her to Princess Fiona from the animated film “Shrek.”
“Fiona was a princess, and she was a beast,” he joked.
Soon, the coach was holding his stopwatch, and Biney and her U.S. teammates were zipping around the track at speeds topping 30 mph. It all quickly became a blur — the lightning-fast racers, sure, but also Biney’s bright future and her atypical past, her close-knit bond with her father and, of course, her talent and practically unmatched potential.
Those who’ve watched Biney grow and mature, both on the ice and off, say that she and her father, Kweku Biney, share a special bond. (Maame Biney’s father and mother separated when she was younger.) And he essentially launched an Olympic career, even if he had no idea he was doing so, when a dozen years ago, he pointed out a sign on the side of the road.
“We were driving down this street right here — Sunset Hills Road,” Kweku Biney, 58, said one recent afternoon, chatting not far from his home in Reston, Va., and excitedly poking a finger in the air. “I think it was one day after work. I saw the sign in front of the rink. It said, ‘Learn to skate.’ I asked her, ‘Maame, you want to try this?’ ”
Though Maame Biney took to the ice right away, she wasn’t a perfect fit for the beginners’ class. An instructor explained to Kweku Biney that his daughter was moving too fast for figure skating and suggested they seek out a speedskating class instead. They were directed toward a beginners’ program in Washington, which later helped spawn DC-ICE, a nonprofit aimed at introducing the sport to inner city youth that met every Saturday morning in the District.
For the Bineys, that meant setting an alarm for 5 a.m. and making the 27-mile trip to Fort Dupont Ice Arena before sunrise.
Those early classes were run by Nathaniel Mills, a three-time Olympian who was immediately struck by Maame Biney’s big personality, if not her palpable athletic potential. She was still learning to maintain her balance and was a tad clumsy on the ice. But she showed up every Saturday morning, wearing bright colors and a brighter smile.
Kweku Biney works in maintenance for a company near their Reston home. He racked up thousands of miles on his odometer and thousands of dollars in bills for coaching and ice time. But he never missed practices, often showing up early to help prep the rink and staying late to pepper the coaches with questions.
“For me, it was very, very hard. It was a long journey,” he said. “I had to sacrifice so many things. The most important thing was always my pocketbook. . . . But to me, it wasn’t a problem. I’m not too concerned about that. If I have it, I just spend it on her.”
Kweku Biney says he saw the joy that speedskating brought his daughter, and as she grew in the sport, he began to understand her potential. Racing for the Dominion Speedskating Club, she began to raise her profile. Last year, she won bronze at the junior world championships, and the Olympics suddenly seemed possible.
In speedskating, elite athletes spend six or seven days a week on the ice. Many travel to South Korea for training. Biney was still a full-time high school student, and the family knew she needed more ice time to make the PyeongChang Games.
Following her junior year at South Lakes High in Reston, she and her father met with officials from Fairfax County Public Schools to explore their options. Biney was hoping to relocate to Kearns, Utah, a small community about 10 miles southwest of Salt Lake City where the U.S. national team trains. She was excited to learn she could take her final year of classes online and move to Utah full time. But for a girl who had never been to a sleepover party, that meant leaving her father.
Maame Biney has been living with a host family the past seven months in Park City, Utah. She calls her father daily, and during practices she’ll often search the empty bleachers for her father’s attentive gaze.
“But he’s never there, unfortunately,” she said.
Maame Biney doesn’t yet have a cellphone or a driver’s license. She turns 18 in a week and is applying to colleges. She’d love to attend school next fall somewhere nearby that would allow her to continue training full time with the national team.
She’s explosive off the starting line and can accelerate as quickly as some of the fastest men. She’ll compete in the 500- and the 1,500-meter races in PyeongChang — with her father looking on from the stands — but knows her best bet will be at the shorter distance. At the U.S. trials, she nearly swept the 500-meter races and posted a personal-best time of 43.161 seconds.
Coaches are excited by the potential that lies beyond these Olympics. Biney just recently started doing weight training, and her technique has a lot of room for growth. In some ways, these Olympics are her ground floor. Her athletic peak might be four, or even eight, years away.
She doesn’t necessarily crave the attention the Olympics might bring but likes the idea that she might be an inspirational figure, perhaps to young black girls or to a nation of dreamers halfway around the world.
She says she talks to her family in Ghana once a week or so, but she hasn’t been back to visit since 2014. Almost all of her childhood memories are from her time in the United States, but she feels connected to both countries.
If she has a secret weapon, it’s the exuberance she brings to the ice.