South Lakes Grad Makes Second Winter Olympics Appearance, Marshall Junior Waits in Wings
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Maame Biney knows the drill. The South Lakes High graduate and champion speed skater will make her second trip to the Winter Olympics in February, with fond memories of support from FCPS staff and students during her 2018 Olympics debut. Ilia Malinin, a 17-year-old junior at Marshall High in Falls Church, is hoping he gets to feel that same rush. Ilia, who finished second this year at the U.S. Nationals Men’s Figure Skating Championship, will be the U.S. Olympic Team’s first alternate for the sport in the Beijing competition. Given the worldwide pandemic, his odds of ultimately competing may be far higher than usual for an alternate as COVID-19 tests have complicated plans for athletes around the world.
“As an alternate this year, anyone at any time could test positive, so you just have to be ready to go,” Ilia said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the past few years of Ilia’s training as well. At first, when life across the U.S. screeched to a halt at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, Ilia had more time to focus on skating when schools were shuttered or operating on limited, virtual schedules. But life under lockdown meant ice rinks were closed as well, making practice difficult. “I tried to be creative, do off-ice practice and preparation at an empty outdoor tennis court near my house where I would work on things like jumps in my sneakers,” Ilia says. “I’d go there because at least practicing jumps in that big open space helped me get the feel of doing tricks. My main goal then was to keep cardio workouts up so my body stayed used to it.” When in-person school resumed, Ilia still maintained an unusual schedule for a student, due to the demands of training. “My schedule is a little different than anyone else’s, I go into school for two hours a day, and I spend about five hours a day skating,” he says of his routine for the past two years. Ilia takes half his classes in-person, half are online. His teachers and classmates have been supportive of his skating career and non-traditional schedule, he says. “I have to travel places sometimes, I don’t miss a lot but when I do the teachers work with me and are understanding about making up work and extensions,” Ilia, whose parents are both former Olympians themselves, says. “Teachers will stop me and say, `I just saw you on TV, why didn’t you tell me?’” His classmates are equally supportive. “I have friends and classmates who appreciate the fact that you are a bit different, not the regular basketball team guy, and I think at Marshall in particular there are plenty of people who embrace the uniqueness of it all and support me.” For Maame Biney, she has similar memories of teachers who ensured she could meet academic requirements while working around the demands of elite athletic training. The repeat Olympian was herself an FCPS student at South Lakes High when she competed in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea in 500 meter and 1500 meter short-track speed skating after winning the U.S. women’s championship in 500 meters.
She gives special credit to a South Lakes front office staffer who was always kind and welcoming, even when she was checking into school tardy after a late night practice or competition. “It was always `Good Morning, I’m so glad you’re here,’” Maame recalls, even if she felt sheepish about oversleeping or missing the bus. That FCPS employee, Blanca Sanchez – who now works at Fairfax High School, gifted Maame a notebook for her travel to Pyeongchang in 2018, so she could record her thoughts about competing in the Olympics. Maame also recalls support and encouragement from South Lakes Principal Kim Retzer. “”After the Olympics, there was an event I had to go to where I had to address a room full of grownups,” Maame said. “I was only 18 and I was so scared and terrified of giving a speech. She not only calmed me down and talked me through preparation, she drove me to the event itself and supported me the whole way.” South Lakes Principal Retzer says the school community is just as eager to cheer Maame on during this year’s Olympics. “There was so much excitement as our whole school cheered for Maame on her journey to and at the 2018 Olympics,” Retzer says. “Once again, the South Lakes pyramid, where she grew up, can’t wait to cheer her on again in the coming weeks! “
Now a University of Utah student, Maame says her fondest FCPS memories are the friends she made in Kindergarten at Terraset Elementary – Emma and Becky – and playing kickball in elementary school there. “Honestly, my very best moment was just gathering together with other kids from different grades, challenging each other on the kickball field, when nothing else mattered, those are the memories that always put a smile on my face.”