Meditation and alter ego Anna the key for trailblazer Biney

Maame Biney caught the eye of ice sport aficionados with her incredible junior career – then that of the wider world at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 as she became the USA’s first female African American short track Olympian. Now, she is looking to make headlines for winning medals at Beijing 2022 – aided by meditation, positive thinking and an alter ego.

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“The thing about Anna is she is very fierce and strong, and she doesn’t care about anything,” said US short track speed skater Maame Biney. “She doesn’t care who she’s on the ice with. All she wants to do is be the fastest and the smartest, and cross that line first. We are completely different. I’m very shy and awkward.”

Biney, 20, is not talking about some deadly sporting rival: she is talking about herself. The Utah-based skater has an alter ego, Anna Digger, who she has used to overcome crippling nerves about racing. “In real life, I like to stay in the background, not be front and centre,” she said. “But you need that in racing. So having Anna by my side, she can do that being-fierce stuff for me. Getting in character helps me go faster. And the first season I was skating on the World Cup circuit, I was a nervous wreck the whole time. I was so young, and these were Olympians and champions, so I had to learn how to deal with it.”

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Biney has had – quite literally – a very long journey to becoming the first female African American to represent the USA in short track at the Olympic Winter Games. She moved from Ghana to Maryland aged five. “She didn’t even know what skating was,” her father Kweku joked when previously asked about how Biney got into the sport. “She didn’t even know what that word was. The only cold thing in Ghana is cold beer.”

Biney remembers her introduction to the sport well. “When I was six, we were driving along and saw a sign saying, ‘Learn to skate’,” she said. “He [her father] asked me if I wanted to, and I had no idea what it was. But I went along and enjoyed it. At first I did figure skating, but my coach told me I was going too fast. So I tried speed skating. I’d never heard of that either – but I did know I had that ‘fast switch’ in me.

“I never really tried any other sports; I did gymnastics for one day and then went back to the rink. I loved the crazy wildness of short track. I still enjoy the speed, but now I’m trying to master the sport as an art, too.”

Her incredible progress was soon evident. At junior level in the 500m – short track’s shortest and most furious event – Biney regularly obliterated talented international fields, leading from the front throughout. At the Montreal 2019 World Junior Championships, she also smashed the junior world record over this (her favourite) distance.

“I realised I was good when I was in my second year of skating in the juniors, at 15,” she said. “The junior team went to Austria, I got my first international medal, and I really liked that feeling. I thought, ‘Holy cow, I love winning’. The Olympics suddenly came into my sights.”

But with so many great athletes in the senior field, including the Republic of Korea’s three-time overall world champion Choi Min Jeong, and current world champion Suzanne Schulting of the Netherlands, Biney was suddenly in a group she could not just leave in her wake. “Stepping up has been hard,” she said. “There are so many great athletes, but I needed to realise I am as good as them, and that I need to learn to skate smart. Over time, I’ve developed a new way of thinking; it can’t just be ‘skate fast’.”

The Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 were a vital experience. “It was insane – the atmosphere, the environment,” Biney said. “I loved it being [in] Korea because Korea is such a powerhouse in the speed skating world. They love the sport, and the stadium was packed and noisy. The people and the food were great, too. It was just such a good experience. It made me really want to go again, and make it to Beijing 2022.”

This time around, the podium will be on the agenda, rather than just participation. “The last couple of years have been a rollercoaster, with some really good competitions for me and some where I’ve been disappointed in myself,” she said. “But I’ve learned about who I am as a skater and as a person, and what I need to do to be a better skater. I’m very excited for the next year-and-a-half leading to the Games. A medal at Beijing, and hopefully a gold, is 100 per cent my biggest goal. I really want it. I have experience under my belt, and I like to think I have a good chance. But who knows – it’s short track.”

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Biney attracted a huge amount of press in PyeongChang thanks to her African American background. “In a way it was a surprise, and in a way it wasn’t,” she said. “Winter sports are very white. I’ve been a speed skater all my life, and surrounded by people who aren’t black all my life, but the speed skating community is very close knit. There are no bad vibes, no bad juju, no sense of ‘she’s black, she doesn’t belong here’.

“And I didn’t grow up feeling different. It wasn’t something I needed to think about, day to day. But at the Olympics, everyone wanted to interview me because of it. It was kind of cool at the same time, though. It’s nice to represent the black community in a sport that is white- and Asian-dominated. I’m happy to be that person.”

Like most other sports, short track’s season has been decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2019-20 World Championships were cancelled, and most of this season has followed. “It’s been tough without racing,” Biney said. “It sucked that our championships didn’t take place. But then we thought this season would be OK, and obviously now that hasn’t happened.

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“Personally, though, I’ve tried to just focus on good things. I may not be able to gauge where I am and what I need to improve without racing, but I’m using positive reinforcement. There are no competitions, but I have lots of months to get stronger physically and work on technical things. I’m trying to fix things and make it a positive time. I’ve also learned to meditate, which helps me get right where I need to be, really focused.”

In the meantime, she is studying information systems at the University of Utah while keeping her focus on Beijing. While it may not be the natural sporting order for the USA to be the underdog, in short track, Biney is happy to represent a country that lags behind the Republic of Korea, Canada and the Netherlands in the pecking order.

“I like it; I use it as encouragement,” she said. “It gives you a higher goal in a way. The USA may not be the strongest at skating, but we’ve got this opportunity to catch up. Korea are so amazing and we always look to them, but they’re a good target to try and catch.” Biney – and Anna – will both be trying their best on the road to Beijing.