Bones Break. She Doesn't: WMX Champ Ashley Fiolek Takes X Games Gold
Ashley Fiolek rips across the course. Gunning it at highway speeds, she hits a 15-foot jump and climbs still higher -- when she peaks, she may as well be falling from a three-story building. But Ashley's not afraid. Not of getting hurt, not of being a girl in a male-dominated sport, and not of competing against athletes who would seem to have a major advantage: being able to hear.
At just 20 years old, Ashley is already a champion many times over. She won the Women's Motocross Championship in her first two seasons as a pro, grabbed the Women's Moto X Super X title at X Games 15 and 16, and is the first and only female member of the distinguished Honda Red Bull Racing motocross team.
"I think that [signing with Honda Red Bull] says a lot about the future of women's racing," says Ashley, who sees an opportunity to dominate at a different level. "I am sure I will eventually qualify for the men's competition."
Make no mistake, motocross is a male-dominated sport. Look no further than this year's X Games to get a sense of just how brightly the Y chromosome shines. Everything screams "guy," from the spectators wearing baseball caps and oversized T-shirts to the sponsor booths staffed with women whose attire leaves little to the imagination.
Ashley pays no heed. "They're doing their job, and I'm doing mine," she says. Exploiting her looks to promote the sport "is not something that I would ever do. I have been approached and asked about posing on a motorcycle in a bikini, but it's just not my style."
With respect to the women at the booths, she adds, "How do you think the male competitors would feel if scantily-clad men were all over the place selling stuff?" The absurdity of this situation illustrates a serious problem: "It is more difficult getting recognition in a male-dominated sport," says Ashley. "I see my fellow male riders getting longer motos [races], TV time, bigger salaries, etc... It's sometimes hard when you know you're working just as hard as they are, but you have to push through all of that, take what you have and try to make the best of it, try to improve the future for the women riders that will follow."
Ashley is also blazing a trail for another community: those who can't hear. "We're visiting some deaf schools on the East coast now that my season is finished," says Ashley. "And I'm bringing my bike… [and] my X Games gold medals with me to encourage the students to have a go at everything, and they shouldn't let anything hold them back."
Ashley has been deaf since birth, making it a non-issue to her. "It doesn't bother me at all," Ashley said in an interview with supercross.com. "It is just my life."
This isn't to say that tackling a manual bike for the first time was a breeze. Riders rely on the noise of a revving engine for shifting, and nine-year-old Ashley struggled at first. Other people told her dad to put a shift light on her bike that would tell her when to shift, but he refused. He wanted his daughter to ride the same bike as anyone else. So Ashley learned to shift using the engine's vibrations.
"I just learned over time how my bike should feel at any given [section] of the track," says Ashley. Being so attuned to the engine also provides some unexpected benefits: "If there is something off or not right, I know immediately. I can't always tell my mechanics what exactly is wrong with the set-up, but I do know that it doesn't feel the same to me."
In mid jump, Ashley pulls the 226-pound bike to one side despite being less than half its weight. She seems to slow down time itself, posing not for show but rather as mere consequence of control, near-perfect mid-air execution. Motocross has competitors jostling for position on 43-hp bikes going 70 mph and jumping 30 feet in the air. If it sounds dangerous, that's because it is.
"In motocross, it's not a matter of if you get hurt, but when," says Ashley, who can prove it with a laundry list of injuries. "I've knocked my teeth out and had to have root canal work done, broken my nose, snapped both collar bones twice, broken my leg, humerus [upper arm], both wrists, ankle--the list goes on."
She knows how to play through pain. Ashley needed to finish 11th or better in one of the two races in the last event to secure the 2009 Women's Motocross (WMX) title. She was doing fine in the first moto when her front tire snagged a rut and jerked sideways, throwing her to the ground. Her crew didn't see it happen; they only found out when Ashley came around the track pointing at her shoulder, having dropped from second place to finish in seventh. She got the championship, but it came at a price: she had broken her collarbone. Again.
"I had surgery for the first time. I needed to have a metal plate and six screws inserted to fix it," says Ashley. "I was a little nervous about it because I was used to things healing naturally, but it was a very nasty break and this was the only way to fix it."
But true to form, neither the seventh-place finish nor the trip to the hospital bothered her: "The worst part about getting hurt is waiting around until you can ride or compete again."
For a champion many times over, Ashley has a unique disposition: she's not full of herself. A fan finds her chilling minutes before a race and asks for an autograph? No problem. Need a picture with her? Of course! And this more than basic professionalism. She's genuinely grateful to her fans.
After a profile on espn.com, fans posted questions for Ashley in the comments section. Most athletes approach media with the understanding that after the interview their commitment has been fulfilled, and the reader comment section usually serves as nothing more than an echo chamber filled with star-struck fans, void of any subject participation.
Not Ashley. She went through the questions and answered everything -- from what tricks she hoped to learn, to advice for a couple considering cochlear implants for their son (Ashley advised against it -- there's nothing wrong with being deaf). Even when media pressure gets intense, she feels an obligation to make herself available. "There is a lot going on, and when you're a girl in this sport it seems like you have to do double the media," Ashley says. "I have to try and find time for both, and sometimes you just have to say no; it's very rough."
In training, the mind works against the unforgivable pull of fatigue and repetition, forced to become stronger as muscle memory is etched into the joints themselves, until it seems every piece of the body, every fiber and bone, has its own distinct set of instructions that are all on autopilot.
With as busy as she's been lately, Ashley could be forgiven for being on cruise control, too. In addition to her school visits, she spent a good deal of time working on her April 2010-released book, Kicking Up Dirt, and with Able Planet, another one of her sponsors, to distribute hearing aids and special headphones to schools for the deaf. On top of that, Ashley works out five days a week with cardio and strength training, and uses the weekends for racing during the summer.
"It's definitely hard to have a personal life when you have so much going on," admits Ashley, "especially when my life revolves around non-stop travel." Despite the myriad of difficulties she faces, Ashley is above all grateful: for the sport, for the fans, and for her family. "I appreciate them so much, and I know I wouldn't be where I am today without them. I am a stronger, better rider because we're all working as a team."
Asked if she's still hyped as ever about motocross, her reply is simple: "It has always been my passion. I just love to ride and race."
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Sources: motorcycle-usa.com; youtube.com; ashleyfiolek.com; motorcycles.about.com; barnesandnoble.com; espn.com; honda.com; supercross.com