At the age of 5, Maame Biney immigrated to the U.S. from Ghana to live with her father. She was an energetic child, and her father wanted to channel that energy into a sport. One day, they drove by a local ice rink in Reston, Virginia, where a sign in front read “Learn to Skate.”
Biney’s father asked if she wanted to give it a try.
“I brought her here, in this particular rink, and she just tried it,” her father, Kweku Biney, said. “And the first day she got on the ice I was scared, you know. I thought she was going to break her head open, so I said, ‘What did I get myself into? This is risky.’”
WATCH: Teen from Ghana Becomes First Black Woman on US Olympic Speedskating Team
But Biney was a natural. “She took that thing in stride, and I was just surprised, you know, the way she was skating,” he said. “And she just looked like somebody who’s been doing it for probably a few months prior to that day.”
Biney was hooked. Every morning she would bounce out of bed to wake up her father for the early morning practices. She tried figure skating first, but a coach noticed how fast she was and encouraged her to take up speedskating. She competed in local events before moving up to the U.S. Junior Championships, where she won a bronze medal.
This month, she qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team after finishing first in the women’s 500-meter trial in Kearns, Utah. At age 17, she is the youngest speedskater on the U.S. team and the first African American woman to represent the country as a speedskater.
“First time I met Maame, she was 9,” said Sooan Yoo, Biney’s coach in Reston. “Now she’s almost my height as she’s gaining age, and she’s representing the USA team.”
Despite her accomplishments, the high schooler doesn’t take herself too seriously.
“I just hope that everyone sees how fun the sport is when you can just go fast and just be awesome. Not that I am awesome or anything, but just — you feel good about yourself, so yeah. Be proud of yourself. That’s it,” she said.
Biney’s achievements have earned her fans around the world, particularly in West Africa, where skating isn’t common. She hopes girls watch her and become inspired to pursue their own dreams.
“Since speedskating or any ice sport isn’t really an option back in Africa, I would just tell all the little kids back there just to find something that you love, and be happy,” she said. “And just have fun with it. Because why are you going to do something if you don’t have fun?”
Biney hopes to do more than just have fun when she competes at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February. Her event, the 500 meter, is the shortest and requires intense sprinting ability. She said her strategy is simple: “Go fast and don’t fall.”
Her teammates say her easygoing attitude belies her hard work and competitive spirit. Her team, Dominion Speedskating, practices six to seven days a week.
“She is really kind and everything. She’s really caring,” said 15-year-old Dominion teammate Joonsuh Oh. “Everyone loves her when you first see her. She seems kind of intimidating because you just never know her. But if you actually meet her, she’s really friendly, and when she skates, she’s amazing.”
Despite intense pressure, Biney’s father hopes she can just soak up the moment and have fun. He said seeing her walk with Team USA during the opening ceremony will be enough of a reward. Anything more will be a bonus, he said.
“Once you stay focused, everything will fall in place” he said. “That’s it. That’s all I got for her. She doesn’t need to be afraid of anything, and I don’t think she is.”