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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

Katie Ledecky wins race by 30 seconds, takes back No. 1 ranking

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In her last race of the year, Katie Ledecky ensured she would finish 2019 as the world’s fastest 1500m freestyler.

Ledecky clocked 15:35.98 at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, winning the longest event on the Olympic pool program by 29.97 seconds. Typical for Ledecky, who owns the nine fastest times in history. This one came in at No. 8. Full meet results are here.

Ledecky scratched the 1500m free final at the summer world championships due to illness. Italian Simona Quadarella went on to win that title in 15:40.89, which was the world’s fastest time this year until Saturday night.

“I didn’t have time on my mind at all today. I just wanted to have a consistent swim,” Ledecky, undefeated in 1500m free finals for nine years, said on NBCSN. “That’s probably the best mile that I’ve had in a while.”

The women’s 1500m freestyle debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo. Ledecky is expected to add that to her Rio Olympic individual lineup of 200m, 400m and 800m frees, assuming she is top two in each event at the June Olympic trials.

In other events Saturday, Erika Brown handed Simone Manuel a rare defeat in the 100m freestyle. Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, clocked 53.42 and lowered her personal best by .71 between prelims and the final. Brown moved from sixth to fourth in the U.S. rankings this year, upping her stock as a contender to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool via a top-six finish at trials.

Brown previously lowered her personal best in the 50m free on Thursday. She ranks third in the U.S. this year in that event.

Emily Escobedo dealt Lilly King a rare domestic defeat in the 200m breaststroke. Escobedo lowered her personal best by .87 and clocked 2:22.00, moving to seventh fastest in the world this year and remaining fourth among Americans.

In the men’s 200m breast, Olympic champion Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan was beaten by Cody Miller, the Olympic 100m breast silver medalist. Both were slower than their best times this year.

The next significant swim meet is a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., from Jan. 16-19.

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Mikaela Shiffrin runner-up in Lake Louise downhill

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LAKE LOUISE, Alberta (AP) — Here’s a scary thought for her competition: Mikaela Shiffrin is still getting comfortable with the intensity and the speed of the downhill.

That’s why podium finishes are still a little surprising even to her.

The American three-time overall World Cup champion finished runner-up to Nicole Schmidhofer of Austria in a downhill race Saturday. Schmidhofer cruised through the course in 1 minute, 49.92 seconds to edge Shiffrin by 0.13 seconds. Francesca Marsaglia of Italy wound up third.

Schmidhofer has four career World Cup wins, with three of them arriving at Lake Louise.

Known as a tech specialist, Shiffrin is steadily getting up to speed in the speed events. This was Shiffrin’s fourth career World Cup podium finish in the downhill, which includes a Lake Louise win in 2017.

So, does Shiffrin anticipate this kind of downhill success?

“No, no, no,” the 24-year-old from Colorado said. “It’s certainly not normal (for a downhill podium). Even racing downhill doesn’t feel normal. But I feel every year like I have more experience and get more comfortable.”

Shiffrin currently sits at 62 World Cup wins, which ties her with Austrian great Annemarie Moser-Proell for second-most on the women’s side. Lindsey Vonn had 82 wins before her retirement.

“I’m certainly more comfortable with the long skis,” Shiffrin said of downhill racing. “Right now, it’s enjoying it, because speed is a little bit extra for me. My goal is to be able to succeed in speed as well. It’s making the transition and trying to have fun with it.”

Czech Republic skier and snowboarder Ester Ledecka finished fourth Saturday. She was the surprise winner of Friday’s season-opening downhill, which was delayed and shortened by heavy snowfall on the mountain. The race Saturday was restored to its full length.

Next up, a super-G on Sunday.

“It’s always been a little bit tricky for me from downhill skis to super-G skis and to change the timing a little bit,” Shiffrin said. “I’m going to have fun.”

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