Teen Breakout Speed Skater Maame Biney Looks Back at Her First Olympics and Teases the Future
"Even six month ago, if you told me I was ever going to be a role model, I would be like, 'You're crazy man, you're funny,' " Biney tells PEOPLE
And while it’s true that she is bubbly and she is a teenager and she is a first-time Olympic speed skater, the thing she hopes audiences remember about her is her determination.
“What I would really like people to think, not think of me as the really bubbly girl that they see on TV. I want them to think of me as the really determined one be on the podium,” Biney told PEOPLE earlier this week on the coast of Gangneung, South Korea.
“What I am going to take away from this experience that I have had is that I have to train harder and have to be the best at everything that I do,” Biney says. “So I am really excited to go back home and to do that.”
The 18-year-old, who emigrated from Ghana at age 5 and grew up in Virginia with her dad, charmed spectators at home and online with her seemingly constant sunniness and optimism, beginning with an almost viscerally joyful reaction in December to qualifying for Team USA.
An interview with Olympic medalist Apolo Ohno before the opening ceremony two week ago was similarly effusive.
“I like to make other people happy and I think I’ve accomplished that,” says Biney, who recently signed a Kellogg’s sponsorship. (While she usually eats healthier options like egg sandwiches, she admits her favorite breakfast is chocolate frosted flakes.)
Biney’s cheeriness has buoyed her through her experiences in Korea, where she faced disappointment in a sport crowded with faster athletes. She competed in two short-track speed skating events here, the women’s 500-meter and 1,500-meter. The shorter one was her better competition, though she didn’t advance past the quarterfinals there.
Afterward she posted a teary-eyed photo of herself on Twitter, writing: “Smile. That’s the best you can do when you’re having a bad day. It won’t be bad forever.”
On Saturday, Biney also failed to make it to the semifinals in the 1,500-meter.
“I really did fight in my race and I tried to do the best that I could,” she says, “but unfortunately the other skaters are really good and they like, they are just really good.”
“For my 500, I was very disappointed and I really, really wanted to go into the next race,” she continues, “but unfortunately … I just underestimated my opponents and I don’t ever really do that. It’s just something that my nerves got to me and I am going to work on that when I get back home.”
Loss or no, Biney’s social media notifications filled with support.
“I’ve had so many messages from people just telling me that I am an inspiration and that I did a really good job and I should be proud and they are proud of me,” she says. “I really like that because, honestly, I didn’t feel proud of myself when I didn’t get the result that I wanted to get for my 500. Those messages that random people were sending me, I just really loved it.”
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In a sign of the kind of change that may await Biney back home in Reston, Virginia, she was greeted after the 1,500-meter by Saturday Night Live‘s Leslie Jones, who has been working as an NBC Olympics correspondent.
Biney says she was surprised by Jones’ request to meet her: “I was like, ‘What? Leslie Jones, a Hollywood actress, wants to meet me — like the funniest, one of the funniest people I’ve ever heard, wants to meet me? No way,’ ” she recalls.
They spent an hour, hour and a half, together. “I loved it because she is awesome and she asked really awesome questions,” Biney says.
“It went by so fast though,” she says. “It went by too quickly. I wish the time with her was a lot slower. Time goes by when you are having fun.”
Asked about her history-making place as the first African-American woman to qualify for Team USA speed skating (followed shortly after by Erin Jackson), Biney is similarly self-deprecating.
“Even six month ago, if you told me I was ever going to be a role model, I would be like, ‘You’re crazy man, you’re funny,’ ” she says .”But I think I am still getting to the point where, wow, little kids are looking at me and they are wanting to be me and they are wanting to accomplish their goals. So I am happy that I could be that person to do that for them.”
Before Biney returns stateside — ” I don’t even know how it [my life] is going to change — she has the remaining days of her first Games to finish, alongside her teammates and new friends. (As much as she has asked other athletes like Lindsey Vonn for photos, she’s been popping up in the pictures of other Olympians as well.)
Outside of competitions, Biney’s mornings in Korea have started about 9 or 10, followed by breakfast, a workout, practice, then dinner. She’s also found time to sample the Olympic Village’s McDonald’s.
“I’ve been there maybe five-plus times,” she says. She’s partial to their apple mango smoothie but has indulged in a burger (or two) and fries.
And one of the ways she’s been relaxing off the ice is with Netflix, as she works through a re-watch of one of her favorite shows, MTV’s Teen Wolf. She’s covered the first two seasons and then some in five days. “Dylan O’Brien is like my celebrity crush,” she says.
While she doesn’t see her Olympic speed skating career continuing for more than another decade, she does have her eye on the 2022 Games — and perhaps 2026.
“I’m definitely not doing this because I want the attention or anything,” she tells PEOPLE. “I’m skating because I love skating and I want to keep skating because I want to be able to be on that podium and have the American flag.”
“Oh man, I want that moment so badly,” she says. “I am excited to go back home and just really train my butt off and be able to achieve my goal.”
The 2018 Winter Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.