With the start of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Friday, American speed skaters Maame Biney and Erin Jackson take another step in their history-making journeys as the first African-American women to represent the U.S. on the Olympic speed skating team.
Bubbly, charismatic and with an infectious smile, the Ghanaian-born Biney was just 17 last December when she qualified for the Olympics as a short track specialist. Her skills on the ice elevated her to the height of legendary black trailblazers such as tennis champion Althea Gibson, baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson and ground-breaking Olympic gold medal skater Debi Thomas.
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In January, the remarkable Jackson, 25, followed Biney into the history books by punching her ticket to Pyeongchang as a long-track skater. It was a prodigious feat, considering that the roller-skating veteran had taken to the ice barely four months before.
Along with compatriot and fellow pioneer Shani Davis — the first black male short track speed skater, back in 2002 — Biney and Jackson will add a distinct flavor to sport’s greatest winter spectacle.
Biney eclipsed the field in the 500-meter short-track speed skating event at the Olympic trials.
“I can’t believe it — aw, geez!” the ecstatic teen told The Associated Press. “It’s a really good feeling, but it has to set in first because it takes me a while.”
That exuberant outburst and Biney’s giggly postrace interview would endear her to legions of new fans.
Her medal quest in Pyeongchang will be focused on the 500-meter and 1,500-meter events. An explosive starter, she relishes the 500-meter challenge.
“It’s short and fast, and those are my two favorite things about skating: going really fast in a short race,” she told TeamUSA.org.
Biney’s unlikely skating passion dates back to when she was 5 and a recent arrival from tropical Ghana. Driving with her father on a Reston, Va., road, she spotted a sign offering skating lessons – and that was the lure to an incredible career on the ice.
She won a bronze medal in the 500-meter race at the 2017 World Junior Championships in Austria, and triumphed over the same distance in the 2017 short track World Cup qualifiers.
Biney described her passion for speed and skating in an interview with the Washington Post: “The wind in my face, breezing past me. Oh, man, it feels amazing. … It’s like when it’s a hot day outside and you just get the cold breeze on your face — it feels like that but 100 times better because you’re skating.”
Pyeongchang could be just as exhilarating an experience if the high school senior — who, since relocating to train in Salt Lake City and has been taking classes online — has her way.
“I just hope to have fun and not overstress about my results or how I’m going to do or what everyone’s going to think,” she said. “I just hope to have fun and enjoy my Olympic experience.”
In Jackson’s case, it was akin to becoming an ace at one sport instantly, then astonishingly mastering a second.
The Ocala, Fla., native, a three-time Female Athlete of the Year for roller skating and inline skater for 15 years, had only four months of ice skating experience when the unexpected happened.
“I was coming into the Olympic trials just hoping to get some experience, and kind of see where I am after the time I’ve had on the ice,” she said on “The Jim Rome Show.” “It was definitely a goal of mine to be on Team USA. … I just didn’t see it happening this quickly,” added Jackson who initially was training to participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
A double gold medalist at the Pan American Championships in her previous sport, Jackson hopes to inspire people of color with her historic debut in Pyeongchang.
“I’m looking forward just to being someone that children and people of color can look to, and maybe make them say, ‘Maybe this is a sport that I can get into,’” she told Rolling Stone magazine.
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