First there’s the smile, then there’s that laugh: When short-track speedskater Maame Biney is excited about something, the whole world knows it — and she’s had good reason to be thrilled in recent weeks.
Ever since qualifying in December for the American team at the 2018 Winter Olympics, the 18-year-old Biney’s enthusiasm has infected the internet; and her contagious joy is earning her the notice of spectators at home and her fellow Olympians on Team USA.
“Can we all take a moment to appreciate this ray of sunshine?” figure skater and bronze medalist Adam Rippon posted on Saturday, alongside a photo of the two, with Biney (as ever) beaming.
Set to compete in both the women’s 500- and 1,500-meter races this week in Gangneung, South Korea, Biney is the first black woman who’s ever qualified for Team USA in speedskating. (Erin Jackson, who is also black, made the cut in women’s long-track speedskating a few weeks after Biney, acording to TIME.)
“It’s a huge thing,” Biney told CNN in a story published last week of breaking that racial barrier, while also noting: “I have friends who accept me and who don’t think of me as being an African-American. They just think of me as being normal Maame or being human.”
Keep Following PEOPLE’s Complete Coverage of the 2018 Winter Olympics
Biney’s journey began in Ghana, where she emigrated from when she was 5. According to CNN, it wasn’t long after moving to America to live with her father that she first took up skating, and not terribly much longer after that she was told she was too speedy to be a figure skater. She’d have to be a racer instead.
Growing up in Virginia outside Washington, D.C., “Maame grew into this amazing athlete,” Nathaniel Mills, a former Olympic speedskater, told WTOP.
He first encountered the young Biney when her father brought her into a how-to skating program Mills had started.
“She has physical gifts now, especially in the sprinting areas that set her apart from other speedskaters,” he told the station. “But I would say the No. 1 thing that’s made her rise to the top is that same enthusiasm that she had as a 6-year-old is evident when you watch her skate now — and that’s the recipe for a long career.”
Flash forward a decade, give or take a few years, to December: That’s when Biney made the cut for the Games. She was instantly thrilled, perhaps too much so. “I cheered so hard that I fell,” she told CNN.
A post-race interview with NBC was similarly effusive, her voice breaking with giggles.
She gushed, “It’s crazy awesome because like I’ve dreamt about this moment since June, and I am just so happy right now.”
Within days, her Instagram followers began to multiply into the thousands. And then last week, as Biney gathered with dozens and dozens of her fellow American athletes in their Ralph Lauren-designed uniforms before the opening ceremony, two-time gold medal speedskater Apolo Ohno asked her again, “How do you feel right now?”
“I feel so ecstatic. I’m like, ‘Oh jeez, I’m actually’ — I think it hit, I think it finally hit I’m finally here at the Olympic Games. Holy cow! It’s awesome.”
Asked recently about her sunny disposition, she said, “I think it comes from the fact that I don’t take things for granted, because I know that things back home aren’t as great as things in America. So I always just try to have a happy face and give everyone joy, which is good.”
Much of Biney’s extended family still lives in Ghana, including her brother and mother, whom she speaks with about once a week, according to CNN. “I’m pretty sure they’re cheering me on, which is really awesome,” she told reporters after arriving in Korea.
Biney, more dominant on the shorter track, will face stiff competition in South Korea, which famously fields some of the world’s best speedskaters. But this isn’t likely to be her only shot at the podium. She’s got “maybe one or two more Olympics in her, possibly three,” coach Coach Anthony Barthell told CNN.
It’s a good thing, too, if only for everyone’s mood.
“Pure joy,” NPR’s Melissa Block shared on Twitter last week of Biney. “Her coach says he’s never seen her in a bad mood. After training today, I saw her doubled over in pain from a muscle cramp. She came up laughing.”
“A Maame laugh, that just settles everyone down,” Barthell explained to CNN. “If I see that she’s tired and the morale’s starting to go down — the team, the chemistry’s just a little low, the atmosphere’s a little low for me — I’ll go up and crack a joke because I know it could be a horrible joke, but she’s going to be the one that laughs and everyone else starts recovering a little easier.”
But to all of her competitors: Be warned.
“My game face on the ice is totally different from right now,” Biney said last week. “It’s not this. It’s like, ‘Don’t be in my way because I’m probably going to kill you.’ ”
The 2018 Winter Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.