Maame Biney talks pressure, performance and why she is prioritising her happiness

The short track speed skating Olympian made headlines around the world as the first black woman to qualify for the United States short track speed skating team at PyeongChang 2018. Four years later she is back and renewed for Beijing 2022. 

By Chloe Merrell
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

It’s been four years since short track speed skater Maame Biney first exploded onto the Olympic scene.

As both the first black woman and youngest person ever to make the US Olympic Short Track Speed Skating Team 2018 the 21-year-old, then only 18, was propelled into fame at PyeongChang 2018, well-received for her positively infectious laugh and attitude.

After placing first in the 500m race at the US Short Track Olympic Trials late last year, Biney is bound for Beijing 2022 and the American is delighted; her confidence on the ice, after a long three years, is back.

In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with Olympics.com, as featured on the Olympic Channel Podcast, Biney talks about life after her first Games in South Korea, why she's now advocating for mental health and her new 'realistic' approach for second Olympic appearance.

Maame Biney: struggling with the limelight after PyeongChang 2018

When an athlete puts their name down in history books the world stands in applause but for Biney, after her feats were highlighted in South Korea, she found herself under an immense amount of pressure and unsure where to turn:

"I guess it wasn't necessarily fair to just push me into that spotlight and I also don't really enjoy the spotlight,” the Olympian said, “my shoulders were way too heavy."

“I didn't know how to deal with and I didn't have that the resources at that time to really manoeuvre what I was feeling because at that point, it was just very much, 'Oh, she only smiles , she's so happy all the time, and very energetic,' which I am, but I also have this side of me where I just wanted to go home and sleep and not do anything and just stay in my bed all day."

Since then, the American has been working on how to manage her emotions surrounding pressure particularly when she finds herself being overwhelmed. She now feels she’s in a much stronger position than she previously was thanks to new coping strategies she has learned:

“I definitely have like the right tools now in order to get through that either by like shutting off my social media or reading a book or watching TV.

"My organisation, US Speed Skating, has been a great help with mental health and helping me try to find like a therapist and my therapist has been super great and very helpful.”

The hardest part for the skater is finding the time to speak to her therapist alongside her intensive World Cup schedule. When that happens Biney has to work with her new tools herself:

I had a book basically where I could like use different activities to basically escape the cloudiness and things that that were going on in my brain and yeah, it's been super helpful.

“Even the past couple of weeks and or a couple of months going into World Cups and stuff like that, I had a book that was meant for anxiety and I would use that whenever I had an anxiety attack."

Maame Biney after winning the women's 500m final at the US Short Track Speed Skating Olympic Trials
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Maame Biney: Black Lives Matter, mental health and advocating for good

After the spotlight was cast upon her following her debut at the Games, Biney discovered she suddenly had a platform.

Followed by over 26 thousand people on Instagram, the skater former junior world champion realised people were interested in what she had to say.

When unarmed black man George Floyd was murdered in Minnesota while in police custody, the speed skater decided to use her newfound voice and platform to draw attention to the subject.

“At first I didn't want to say anything just because I felt like it was a quote unquote my place as an athlete to say anything on my social justice matters,” Biney shared. “But then like, I don't know it, just really hit me when George Floyd died, like that really hit me extremely hard.

“My dad didn't want me to say anything just because he wanted to protect me ultimately and I completely understood that and respected that but I was like, 'No, this is affecting me. This is affecting every other black person in America and really in the world.' It's not fair of me who has like 20 plus thousand followers on Instagram to just stay completely silent. And so, I was like, 'You know what? No.' It is what it is. If I get hate, then they should not be following me in any capacity, and I don't mind losing followers."

To her surprise Biney found herself being widely supported for her decision to speak up on the matter:

I just got so much love and so much concern and it felt really good because there are people out there that really do care and really do want to make a difference, whether you're whether they were black or white or Hispanic or Asian.”

Now Biney’s attentions have shifted to highlighting the importance of mental health, something which she has struggled a lot with since her debut at the Olympics.

“It's been more a little bit about mental health and how to get yourself out of the little hole that you're in because I've experienced that.”

Maame Biney: Beijing 2022 and setting her own definition of success

Following her result at PyeongChang 2018, which she herself described as 'disappointing', Biney has made a deliberate decision to recalibrate her focus ahead of the Games in the Chinese capital.

"I am extremely excited to go to the Games and just show the world what we all have because we all have our strengths and all we need to do is just use them."

"I hope to leave China with content," Biney shared before revealing there was a time she thought she might not make it. “To even be here at this point is just amazing just because, literally in the summer, I didn't think I would. I had a really hard time just because I had an injury and stuff like that.

“I don't want to put a goal and say like, 'Oh yeah, like I want to go and medal.' I just want to be realistic in a sense and just say, 'No, I just want to go out there and do the best I can and just be content with it.'”

READ: Maame Biney: Five things to know

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