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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

Adeline Gray breaks U.S. record with fifth world wrestling title

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U.S. wrestlers have won more than 60 gold medals in the history of the world championships. Adeline Gray is at the top of that list.

Gray earned her American record-breaking fifth world title in Kazakhstan on Thursday, taking the 76kg final 4-2 over Japanese Hiroe Suzuki.

She broke her tie of four world titles with Olympic gold medalists John Smith and Jordan Burroughs and Tricia Saunders, who earned her crowns in the 1990s before women’s wrestling was added to the Olympics in 2004. Burroughs can match Gray later this week.

“I’ve got to mark that off my bucket list,” said Gray, who earned her seventh medal Thursday, six weeks after right hand surgery. “Kristie Davis was a nine-time world medalist, and I’m still chasing that.”

Gray, 28, earned her fourth straight world title and continued an impressive rebound. She had a two-year win streak before being upset in the Rio Olympic quarterfinals, missing the chance to become the first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling champion.

Though Gray keeps a pyramid with goals — including five-time world champion, Olympic champion and to “be exciting” — she purposely grounds herself with acronyms and conversations with friends to lessen the hype.

“I had a lot of those thoughts before 2016, and I think that let it creep up to me a little bit in a negative way,” Gray said in June. “Just the fact that some people were saying, like, hey, you’ve had a great career. It’s awesome what you’ve done. You’re already written in the history books kind of thing.”

Gray revealed six months after that Rio disappointment that she wrestled in Brazil with a shoulder injury. She underwent surgeries on that shoulder and to repair a torn meniscus in her knee in January 2017 and went 11 months between matches, missing that year’s world championships.

During that break, she married U.S. Army Capt. Damaris Sanders. She scaled 14,000-foot mountains. Gray wasn’t sure about returning. She thought about trying to have a baby instead. Even when she did get back on the mat, she considered phasing out if she started losing matches.

“It took a little bit of figuring out what I wanted and figuring out why I wanted to come back,” she said Wednesday, after reaching the final. “Really, the reason I’ve been sticking around is because coach Terry [Steiner]‘s been whispering in my ear, making sure I know that I’m good enough to be winning at this level. And there’s something more than that. There’s this huge wave of women’s sports, and I’m part of that. It’s something special.”

Earlier Thursday, American Tamyra Mensah-Stock reached Friday’s 68kg final, one year after taking bronze in the division. Mensah-Stock routed Japan’s Olympic champion Sara Dosho 10-1 in the quarterfinals.

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Genzebe Dibaba, 1500m world record holder, to miss world championships

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Genzebe Dibaba, the 1500m world record holder, will miss the world track and field championships that start next week due to a right foot injury, according to her agency.

The Ethiopian Dibaba lowered the 1500m world record to 3:50.07 in 2015, then won the world title a month later. Kenyan Faith Kipyegon relegated her to silver at the Rio Olympics. Dibaba was last in the 12-woman final at the 2017 Worlds, then withdrew from the 5000m at that meet, citing illness.

Dibaba’s absence further opens the door for Americans Shelby Houlihan (second-fastest in the world last year) and Jenny Simpson, the Olympic bronze medalist and 2017 World silver medalist.

Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan is fastest in the world this year and broke the mile world record on July 12. Hassan has range from 800m through 10,000m, and it’s not guaranteed she will contest the 1500m in Doha starting with the first round Oct. 2.

The event is already lacking Caster Semenya, the two-time Olympic 800m champion who took bronze in her world 1500m debut in 2017. Semenya is excluded from races from 400m through the mile under the IAAF’s new rule capping testosterone in those events.

MORE: U.S. roster for track and field worlds

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