« Personal Picture Pen | Home | Noodlehead Sprinkler »

October 4, 2008

17-year-old Ashley Fiolek is the Evelyn Glennie of Motocross

Long story short: Ms. Fiolek (above), completely deaf since birth, relies on her engine's vibrations to tell her when to shift.

Here's Matt Higgins's September 21, 2008 New York Times article about the winner of this year's professional Women's Motocross Association championship, who hopes one day to "... try and qualify in the men's pro race class."

    Finding Her Rhythm by Engine’s Cadence

    With pink streaks in her hair and mischief in mind, Ashley Fiolek appeared more like a 17-year-old on summer vacation than a crusader for gender equity in her sport.

    She was both last month at the Steel City Motocross National, held on a rambling rural landscape outside Pittsburgh. Before practice, she hid a competitor’s helmet as a gag. Hours later, she clinched the professional Women’s Motocross Association championship, soaring six feet over the finish line with her left arm raised to the sky.

    It was an unambiguous gesture. But afterward, as she outlined career goals, her father, Jim, interpreted.

    “Hopefully, next year I can come back and win it again,” Fiolek said, using sign language. “And maybe one day race with boys and try and qualify in the men’s pro race class.”

    In a sport where bumps, berms, jumps and ledges are the norm, Fiolek has proved adroit at overcoming obstacles. Born deaf, she has become the top women’s motocross racer, using a technique that relies on the rhythms of the engine to indicate when to shift gears.

    Although she had won an amateur women’s championship in 2004 — and finished 11th against 41 boys in another amateur championship — Fiolek was a revelation as a rookie professional in 2008, winning four of six rounds.

    “I kind of expected when she got to the pro class that she would do well,” said Miki Keller, who founded the W.M.A. in 2004. “But not that she would dominate the way she has.”

    Yet it will require more than speed to race against men for the AMA Toyota Motocross Championship. At 5 feet 2 inches and 106 pounds, Fiolek will need to become stronger.

    In the meantime, there are increasing opportunities for professional women’s racers. Fiolek competes in a women’s series in Europe. And the X Games added women’s motocross last month.

    “It’s definitely a growing part of the industry,” said Jan Plessner, a spokeswoman for Kawasaki, which sponsors the W.M.A.

    Still, women make up just 10 percent of motorcycle owners, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council, an industry group.

    And although there may be no glass ceiling in the sport, at the Steel City National there was a chain-link fence.

    On one side: top factory-supported men’s riders, with six-figure salaries and support teams to care for their bikes. On the other, Fiolek and other women in a privateer’s paddock with a second tier of men’s riders who often pay their own way to races.

    There, the professional Elizabeth Bash, 22, of Riverside, Calif., shared a motor home with her racer boyfriend, who is also her mechanic, and their dog.

    “My mom goes into debt to try to get me to the races,” she said.

    Fiolek’s parents could relate. Jim, a systems analyst for a health-care company near their home in St. Augustine, Fla., is Ashley’s coach. He drives a 1998 Nissan with 220,000 miles on the odometer.

    “Our house needs work, of course, because we’ve been on the road for so long,” he said.

    Her mother, Roni, keeps track of Ashley’s home-school lessons. Both parents attend races with 4-year-old brother Kicker and a mechanic in tow.

    But with her wins, and a growing list of sponsors that includes Honda, Red Bull and T-Mobile, motocross has finally begun to pay off for Fiolek.

    When she began racing at 7, there were other rewards.

    “Being born deaf, it gave her confidence she never had before,” Roni said. “She just kind of became a different person. She wasn’t shy anymore.”

    At first, her parents were unsure what was wrong with Ashley. By age 3, she had not begun talking. Doctors in Dearborn Heights, Mich., where they lived at the time, said she was mildly retarded.

    Roni had other ideas. She noted how Ashley did not flinch when an armload of pots and pans crashed to the floor.

    On a hunch, she brought her to the University of Michigan, where doctors confirmed she was deaf.

    “It was more of a relief,” Roni said. “I finally knew what was wrong.”

    In 1998, the Fioleks moved to St. Augustine so Ashley could attend the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind.

    As she progressed in the amateur ranks, Fiolek needed to adjust for being deaf, especially while transitioning from an automatic transmission to a manual.

    Most riders rely on the sound of a revving engine to know when to shift gears. After months of trial, error and frustration, Fiolek became tuned to her bike’s unique vibrations.

    “I realized when it was revving because the engine would vibrate faster,” she said. “And then I knew it was time to shift.”

    She said being deaf might be an advantage in races. Unaware of competitors approaching from behind, she maintains her composure, a trait that has clearly impressed veteran racers.

    “What surprised me is how consistent she’s been in the pro races,” said Tarah Gieger, 22, who won gold at the X Games and finished fourth in the W.M.A. standings in 2008. “She’s got the main thing, which is the start. And she’s fast. In Colorado, I was behind her the whole race and she didn’t make one mistake.”

    With the championship on the line at Steel City, Fiolek again demonstrated her poise. She and the defending champion, Jessica Patterson, swapped the lead four times in a thrilling race before Patterson fell on the final lap.

    Afterward, Fiolek accepted congratulations on her win and joked with Bash, who has learned sign language.

    Asked what they talk about most, Bash said that the men’s motocross ranks were a favored subject.

    “Her dad would be mad,” Bash said. “But we always talk about boys. How cute they are. How fast.”

October 4, 2008 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference 17-year-old Ashley Fiolek is the Evelyn Glennie of Motocross:


The comments to this entry are closed.