After her infectiously giddy interviews and her viral celebration (and accidental pratfall) upon qualifying for the Winter Olympics last month, 17-year-old Maame Biney (pronounced MAH-may BYE-nee) has quickly become America's most charming speedskater since a certain soul-patched glider stormed his way to gold in Salt Lake City 16 years ago. Now Biney hopes to follow in Apolo Ohno's path, to gold in PyeongChang, where the 2017 world junior bronze medalist in the 500 meters will become just the second African-born Winter Olympian to represent Team USA. (A native of Ghana, Biney immigrated to Rockville, Md., when she was five.) SI caught up with the teen phenom about her newfound fame, being a role model and the virtues of failing—and falling.
SI: A lot of people really enjoyed your reaction immediately after you qualified for the Olympics by winning the 500-meter races at trials. What was that moment like for you?
MB: When I crossed the line, I didn't realize that I made the team. I just was like, "Oh, yeah, I won! I'm one step closer to making the team." And then when I high-fived Anthony [Barthell, the short-track national team coach], I found out, "Oh! I made the team!" And I started cheering more and more. And then I fell down.
SI: Had you thought a lot before about how you would react?
MB: I didn't think about what my reaction would be if I made the team, because I knew it would be really hard. I was skating against three Olympians, and we only had three spots, so I was telling myself that it would be fine if I didn't make the team. But when I did ... I don't know ... it was a lot of emotions.
SI: What has life been like for you since qualifying?
MB: Oh, wow. It's been a lot crazier than I thought it would be. A lot of people wanted to talk to me. All of a sudden my Instagram and Twitter were blowing up. It's very overwhelming, and I'm still getting used to it.
SI: What are you most looking forward to about the whole Olympic experience?
MB: The opening ceremony. For the 2016 Olympics, I watched it and had chills going up my arms because I was like, "I want to be there someday." And I'm going, which is awesome.
SI: It's gotten some attention that you're the first African-American woman to qualify for the Olympics in speedskating. What does that mean to you?
MB: It means a lot to me, and it's such an honor for people to look up to me and want me as their role model. I don't think of myself as a role model because I'm 17 years old and still a kid. But that's amazing, and I hope to inspire everyone to go for it.
SI: Who are some of the athletes that you look up to?
MB: One of them would be [two-time Olympic gold medalist speedskater] Shani Davis. And Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles and Serena Williams. They're so powerful in everything they do. They get through the hard things, and they're just amazing. I strive to be like them one day.
SI: Have you gotten a chance to meet or talk to any of them?
MB: I've known Shani forever. Last year I had the chance to talk to Simone Biles over the phone, and she gave me a lot of advice on how to get through things like this—media, friends and how to balance everything. It was really awesome to get to talk to her.
SI: And what would you say to the people who are now going to look up to you?
MB: Have fun. Having fun is the best thing you can do. Also, don't be afraid to fail. If you fail, get back up because that's how you learn, and learning is awesome.