Identity

Olympic Speedskater Maame Biney Understands the Power of Failure

The 18-year-old on falling down, getting up, and knowing how to keep things in perspective.
August 13, 2018, 3:06pm
Photo by Sean Scheidt

Maame Biney made her mark by becoming the first African-American woman to make the US Olympic speed skating team at the qualifying trials in December 2017, when she was just 17. At the Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, she dazzled spectators with her charm, and her story. Biney was born in Ghana and moved to Reston, Virginia when she was five. It was there that her her dad told The Washington Post, “We were driving down this street right here, when I saw the sign in front of the rink. It said, ‘Learn to skate.’ I asked her, ‘Maame, you want to try this?’” Biney was game, and first laced up her ice skates when she was just five, at SkateQuest in Reston. A coach half-jokingly labeled her “too fast” on the ice. So speed skating it was.

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Biney’s raw talent was evident, but she really caught everyone’s attention when she won the Bronze in the 500-meter event at the World Junior Short Track Speed Skating Championships in Austria in January 2017, becoming the second American ever to earn a medal in this contest. Short track skaters tend to peak around age 25, so Biney has plenty to look forward to, including another Olympic competition in Beijing in 2022. And in March of this year in Poland, Biney won the World Juniors title in the 500 meter race, becoming the first American woman to win a World Junior championship.

Photo by Sean Scheidt

And as the Los Angeles Times wrote after the trials for the 2018 Winter Games, “If becoming the first African-American female speedskater to qualify for the Olympics earned Biney a place in history, the Ghana-born high school senior's megawatt personality is what has positioned her to be the transcendent star of these Games.”

We spoke to Biney about that famous smile, why perfection is overrated, and how she takes being a “first” in stride.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

On knowing how to switch gears
It was my dad who said to me when I was younger, “When you get on the ice, you’ve got to be serious. You can't always play.” Whenever I got to practice I’d be silly a lot, and maybe sometimes wouldn’t pay attention to what the coaches were saying. But as I got older, I got more serious. I said to myself, “OK, I'm actually here for a reason. So I’ve got to be in tune with everything.” So [I] progressed. I didn't all of a sudden have it—it was a step-by-step thing. It’s not like I have an “on” button, but on race days in particular, I know what I have to do and I go into gear when I know I need to. I smile a lot and love to joke around and make people happy, and that’s how I really am, but I have a serious side and have learned to focus through my training.

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On finding the good in failure
When I’m disappointed, I know that it’s ok to cry. It’s good to let it out. But then I have to figure out what I did wrong, and why I had that disappointment in the first place. And more importantly, I need to see what I can do to fix it next time. I often tell younger kids or even people who are older than me that it's okay to be disappointed, and it's okay to fail, because that means that you have things to work on. Having [something] to strive for is actually a good thing. It keeps you motivated and moving forward. If you’re perfect, well, what is there to do then? There’s no fun in that!

On the power of a support system
I feel like all parents should take lessons from my dad. Although he takes my training and career very seriously, he never took it to the point where it was too hardcore, or where I would want to quit because of him. If I ever feel like it’s too much and I feel like I want to take a break, it’s never on him. He’s the one who has encouraged me to do what I feel is good for me, and he really leaves that to me. The “Kick some hiney, Biney” sign he held up at the Olympics was actually a friend’s idea, but the ability to laugh and stay calm during an intense situation is totally him. His strategy of letting me push myself, rather than him doing the pushing, really works with me. I feel like the parents who are so tough on their children take things to the point that it’s not going to be fun for the kid, and that’s going to show in how she performs. I feel like those parents need to take a step back and think, “OK, maybe the reason they're not doing so well is because I'm in it too much.” They should let their kids just have fun or take a fall or whatever. Just let them be themselves for the moment. And, of course, if the kid does something that’s actually bad, then that’s where they should do the parent stuff. But my dad, he’s always supported me, and has never pushed too hard.

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"I often tell younger kids or even people who are older than me that it's okay to be disappointed, and it's okay to fail, because that means that you have things to work on. Having [something] to strive for is actually a good thing. It keeps you motivated and moving forward."

On being mentally tough
Physical strength is necessary for speed skating, but I appreciate how important mental strength is just as much. We all train in similar ways, so really it’s the mental strength that will set you apart from the next person—because you’ll know how to fight through the pain and how to recover more quickly when you fail or fall. That’s something I’m working on and something I really look up to in others. People don’t always realize how important it is to be as strong on the inside as on the outside. I definitely work on both.

I gain mental strength and motivate myself is by watching people I look up to and who possess these abilities. One person would be Serena Williams. She didn't win Wimbledon this year, but she was in the semi-finals, and she had a baby, what, ten months ago?! To me that represents so much mental strength, and reminds me that you’ve just got to keep fighting and it will happen.

On the importance of taking a break
I don’t go out at night and I’m definitely not a wild child and never could be. I have the dad-is-always-in-my-brain thing saying, “You can’t do that. That’s not right.” But that doesn’t mean I don’t like to relax. I love my friends and being around all kinds of people, but sometimes I also just like to be by myself. After a long day I try and watch one episode of something on TV before I go to sleep. I’m the kind of person who is always thinking—I think a lot about everything—and just watching a show I really like makes me less stressed and lets me just focus on something uncomplicated and just laugh.

Photo by Sean Scheidt

On charting new territory
Honestly, I never felt like I was different from all the other skaters. I just felt like part of the family. So after the Olympic trials, when I made the team and I kept seeing those “first black skater to make the U.S. Olympic team” headlines, I was like, “Oh, my god. It's actually true!”

I mean, listen—I'm not saying that I don't know that I'm black. Obviously, I know who I am. But I think it's a burden because there are eyes on me, but it's also a gift because people are looking up to me. And I just think that's a really special thing to have. The idea of having people from around the nation. and maybe even around the world, looking up at me and saying, “Oh, my gosh, I want to be someone like her and I could maybe actually do something like that”—that's a pretty cool thing to have. Especially because I’m also looking up to other people and wanting to be like them, too. So I admit I'm pretty honored to have that title.

25 Strong is a new series highlighting people who have broken barriers and changed culture in 2018. Created with Reebok.