Short Track Speedskating

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An unlikely path from Ghana to possible U.S. Winter Olympic spot

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KEARNS, Utah (AP) — Maame Biney seems like the typical teenager. She giggles with her friends, is making her way through the Harry Potter movies and wants to go to homecoming.

But that’s where typical ends for the 17-year-old speed skating phenom.

Biney is on a path to be the next great U.S. short track skater with the Olympics six months way. The junior world championships bronze medalist won the World Cup qualifier this weekend against Olympians and skaters 10-plus years her senior.

She won three of six finals over the three days and should be named to her first World Cup team on Tuesday.

Biney is intimidated, sure, but that hasn’t stopped her from chasing her dreams.

“Before I came here in the month of June, I had a week worth of dreams about going to the Olympics,” Biney said. “I woke up and was like, ‘[Gasp], oh no, I’m not there!’

“But I’m so excited to go if I make it. And I really want to make it. … [It would be] mind-blowing.”

The journey to this point has been a bit random. Biney, born in 2000, moved to the U.S. from Ghana to be with her father at 5 years old. She was supposed to be coming for a short visit and cried her eyes out when she first arrived.

Her father, Kweku, had to pull the car over three times after picking Maame up from the airport to settle her down. She wanted to go home. But a trip to the mall and J.C. Penney started to change her mind, and soon afterward Maame was repeatedly asking to stay.

Kweku was living in Rockville, Md., and found a school and daycare and their new life began. One day they were driving down the street in Reston, Va., and Kweku looked over and saw a sign that read “Learn To Skate This Fall.” He asked Maame if she was interested, and that’s how it all started.

Ice skating isn’t exactly a popular endeavor in Ghana, so she didn’t know anything about the sport. She’d never seen a rink, but Kweku signed her up anyway.

“We weren’t looking for anything, we were just driving around,” Kweku said. “She didn’t even know what skating was. She didn’t even know what that word was and I explained it to her.

“Only thing cold in Ghana is cold beer.”

Maame was a natural. It didn’t take long before the coach suggested speed skating.

Twelve years later, Maame has moved to Salt Lake City to train in hopes of making the Olympic team. The short track trials begin Dec. 15, where up to five women could qualify for PyeongChang.

Editor’s Note: One athlete in U.S. Winter Olympic history was born in Africa — biathlete Dan Westover, who was born in Madagascar and competed at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, according to Olympic historian Bill Mallon. Biney and skeleton slider Nathan Crumpton, who was born in Kenya, could both make the PyeongChang team.

Kweku suggested taking the year off from high school, but she didn’t want to fall behind. Maame wanted to graduate with her friends, so the school arranged for her to take online classes to stay on track while she trains.

Those types of decisions are the hardest part for Maame, who misses out on many of the normal teenage trappings.

“I feel like that’s the worst part of skating 24-7, not being able to go to homecoming the last three years and not able to hang out with my friends whenever they want to do something,” Maame said through another bout of laugher. “It’s like, ‘Oh, no, I can’t, I have practice.’ I like it, because I also have friends here. So it’s kind of like a win-win kind of situation, in a way.

“Not having a very good social life, I guess. I’m surrounded by speed skaters all the time, and I’m not saying anything bad about them or anything, but we’re not the most mature people in the world. We are not. Even though I’m 17, I feel like I’m a 12-year-old. I am not ready to be 18 in four months.”

That youthfulness also leads to a lack of confidence. Biney was the second American woman since 1996 to earn a junior worlds medal, but she still doubts herself competing against Olympians like Jessica Kooreman, Lana Gehring and Katherine Reutter-Adamek.

National team coach Anthony Barthell and the team psychologist work with Biney on getting out of her own head. Barthell said experience will help as she better learns to master her trade.

“She’s a natural athlete,” Barthell said. “Most natural athletes have a hard transition to skating because speedskating is so unnatural. It goes against everything you’re taught as an athlete. So for her, she’s learned how to skate and is able to use her natural athletic abilities.

“In my eyes, I feel she can be one of the top girls in the world. It’s going to take a little bit of time, but she has the potential.”

Kooreman remembers hearing about Biney four years ago from her coach and Gehring. At 33, Kooreman is aiming for her second Olympics and first medal while 16 years older than Biney.

“Her mentality as a skater and her personality … she reminds me a little bit of myself,” Kooreman said. “She’s a fighter. She enjoys what she does. She’s energetic and brings good enthusiasm to the team.

“It’s nice to have new blood out there and young blood that’s wanting to learn and excited to just skate every day.”

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Q&A: Apolo Ohno discusses 2018 Olympic short track

South Korean star switches events in last try to make Olympic team

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Lee Jung-Su, the last South Korean man to win short track gold, has reportedly switched to long-track speed skating after failing to make the PyeongChang Olympic short track team.

Lee, 27, won the 1000m and 1500m at the 2010 Vancouver Games in South Korea’s most successful Winter Olympic sport.

He made this same switch four years ago after missing the 2014 Olympic team in short track but did not make the Sochi long-track team, either, according to Yonhap News Agency.

After his countrymen went medal-less in Sochi, Lee switched back to short track and was the top South Korean skater the last World Cup season, ranking sixth in the world.

But Lee made zero A finals at the world championships and reportedly placed eighth at the Olympic Trials in April, missing the five-man Olympic team.

Lee is focusing on the new Olympic event of mass start, which is similar to short track pack skating but on the long-track oval, according to Yonhap.

The mass start is nearly 6000m and takes nearly eight minutes, more than three times that of the longest individual Olympic short track event.

South Korea can put no more than two men into the Olympic mass start. A favorite is Lee Seung-Hoon, the 2010 Olympic 10,000m champion who won the 2016 World title in mass start.

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Viktor Ahn prepared for boos at PyeongChang Olympics

Viktor Ahn
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The most decorated South Korean-born Olympian is ready for the very real possibility that he gets booed while competing at the PyeongChang Winter Games.

Short track speed skater Viktor Ahn won his first four Olympic medals for South Korea in 2006 as Ahn-Hyun Soo.

His next four came for Russia in 2014, after Ahn’s falling out with South Korea’s short track powers and nationality switch.

Now, the 31-year-old Ahn is preparing for what should be his last Olympics.

He has competed as a Russian in World Cups in South Korea in 2013 and 2016, but PyeongChang will of course be on another level.

“I think the crowd’s reaction may bother me, but I won’t think about that now,” Ahn said while at a Russian training camp in South Korea on Monday, according to Yonhap News Agency. “It’s something I have to deal with, and I braced myself for this ever since I first got my Russian passport. Not everyone will think of me the same way.”

It might be logical to believe Ahn would get booed while competing in his birth country for a different nation.

But NBC Olympic analyst Apolo Ohno, a former rival of Ahn’s, has said the South Korean public was more upset with the country’s short track officials than Ahn for his leaving. While Ahn won three golds in Sochi, no South Korean man made the top five of any race for the first time in Olympic history.

“He’ll be an absolute superstar [in PyeongChang],” Ohno said in November 2014. “I think they’ll get over [that he competes for Russia]. He’s an anomaly.”

Ahn, who was .077 away from sweeping all four Sochi Olympic golds, earned just one medal at this past season’s world championships, a bronze, after taking the 2015-16 season off.

“Throughout my career, I’ve competed under a lot of pressure,” Ahn said Monday, according to Yonhap. “At the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, I want to have fun skating, rather than worry about results.”

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