Off the Beaten Track

Ashley Fiolek grew up in a house off the beaten track. A beaten motocross track, that is. One with difficult corners that force a rider to think about keeping up speed without losing control. It’s where Fiolek, a two-time Women’s Motocross Association (WMA) Champion, still trains. “My friends always say it’s the hardest track ever,” she says. “The corners are tough and there are lots of them. That’s why people don’t like it.”

Off the beaten track. The road less traveled. However it’s phrased, Fiolek has lived it in more ways than one. When Fiolek starts her engine or when other bikes are strategically zooming up behind her, the noise doesn’t register. Fiolek, who rides in a sport known for its distinctive sound, was born profoundly deaf. “People think of motocross as a hearing sport,” she says. “Obviously it’s not. I’m in it.”

Not only is she in it, she’s dominating it. Her father, a former amateur racer, put her on an automatic motocross bike with training wheels when she was just 3 ½ years old. She learned to dirt-bike before she could pedal a two-wheeler, and it wasn’t long before she wanted those training wheels off. She started competing in amateur races at age 7, touring the country with her family to win the Loretta Lynn Amateur National Motocross Championship in 2004. In 2008, she went pro and became the youngest WMA Champion ever. In 2009, she tookthe honors again. She also won gold at the X-Games in 2009 and 2010. This year, she co-wrote her autobiography, KickingUp Dirt: A True Story of Determination, Deafness, and Daring,with Caroline Ryder.

Fiolek is also a groundbreaker for women in the sport. She’s the first woman to grace the cover of Transworld Motocrossand the first female motocross racer to be signed to a factory team, Honda Red Bull Racing. “It’s an awesome thing,” says Fiolek, who gets a salary from Honda and Red Bull. This year, factory teams have begun to sign other women. “About time,” she quips.

Because Fiolek can’t hear her bike, she has to compensate for what hearing riders take for granted. The sound of the bike tells them when to shift, or if they have a mechanical problem. The engine’s wild rev might suggest they’re accidentally in neutral. Sound can’t be Fiolek’s guide; instead she learned to shift by feeling the vibrations of the bike. Now, she says, she shifts almost by habit. There’s also the vroom vroom a rider hears when another rider is creeping up behind her. Fiolek just has to hold her line until she can look back and make sure no one is there.

Being deaf has its challenges, but there are benefits too. Fiolek doesn’t have to deal with noise distractions, which she says allows her to be more focused. And if other riders talk greasy about her before a race, it doesn’t matter. She can’t hear them. Last year, however, at Glen Helen Raceway in Southern California, she did get distracted when a group of deaf people, there to watch her race, started signing to each other.

Fiolek’s mom, Roni, is often by her side, translating for her, scheduling flights and working with sponsors. Sometimes, though, the tables are turned. Her current mechanic, for instance, is Japanese. Roni says she struggles with his accent and can’t always understand him. He doesn’t sign, but Fiolek understands him better than her mother because she’s not stumped by his accent. “Ashley will tell me what he’s saying. He gestures a lot and so does she. She catches it,” Roni says.

Fiolek was quick with communication even when she was a toddler. She was starting to read lips before her parents realized she couldn’t hear. Roni says Fiolek’s hearing wasn’t tested when she was a baby, and even the pediatrician, who had never treated a deaf child before, didn’t realize she was deaf. In fact, he thought she was mildly retarded. One day, Roni accidentally dropped some pots and pans on the kitchen floor and was surprised when Fiolek didn’t react to the clashing sounds. She took her to a doctor in Ann Arbor where she was correctly diagnosed.

The family moved from Michigan to St. Augustine, Fla., so Fiolek could attend the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind. She left in ninth grade to be home-schooled by her parents and participate more fully in the amateur motocross circuit. The Fioleks traveled from race to race in their motor home and joined an itinerant community of other motocross families. They looked after each other’s kids, fixed bikes and shared bike parts. It’s a way of life they still embrace, although they now fly to most events. Fiolek’s father, Jim, a computer programmer, still trains her on the bike. Her brother, Kicker, 7, rides for fun.

Fiolek eventually left school to ride. She still gives motivational talks at deaf schools, and she’s involved in a number of charities including One.org, which fights global poverty. She doesn’t view her lack of hearing as a loss because she never had it to lose. At one point, Fiolek did discuss cochlear implants with her family, but decided against them. They would make it even more dangerous for her to participate in a contact sport like motocross, because if she hit her head, the implants might be destroyed. “I hit my head a lot,” Fiolek says with a deadpan expression.

But there was more to it than that. Because she has never experienced hearing, the only way she knows how to perceive the world is without sound and through her other finely tuned senses. She tells the story of a woman she met who went to therapy for three months after getting cochlear implants just to “learn” how to hear. The woman’s perception of the world was now completely different from what it had been, and it affected her in numerous ways, both physically and psychologically. “I can’t even imagine. If I heard myself riding, it would just freak me out,” Fiolek says. “The vibrations, I wouldn’t be able to feel them. I would have to depend on my hearing, and I don’t know how to do that. At the starting line I’d hear all this noise. My whole world would change.”

When Fiolek was 10, she thought she might give up motocross altogether. She had experienced a bad crash that resulted in a broken nose and 10 missing teeth. Several root canals later, she decided she was done. She turned her athletic talents to surfing, but after four months, she missed motocross and revved herself up to try again. Even as a young girl, she says she realized it was her fear holding her back. And if she just practiced jumping more and learned to do it better, she could work through it.

At the end of last season, she broke her collarbone. She got back up and finished the race, knowing full well that the hard part, the recovery, was ahead of her—a tough road, no doubt.

“Well obviously, it’s a dangerous sport,” she concedes. But she says she loves the thrill and the competition. “It’s my job,” she says. “It’s my passion. It’s my desire.”

Originally published in 2009.

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