“Because she’s deaf…she never heard people tell her it was impossible,” said Jim Fiolek as he stood alongside the motocross track in Lake Elsinore, CA, watching his daughter, Ashley, ride. And yet, something tells us that it wouldn’t have slowed her down even if she had heard.
By the age of 17, Ashley had already won 13 Amateur Youth Championships, been featured in Rolling Stone and the New York Times, and was the 2004 America Motorcycle Association (AMA) Youth Motocrosser of the Year. Impressing even industry veterans, Ashley raised her own bar when she won the overall title at the Women’s Motocross Association Championship in her rookie year. She also became the first deaf person to win an American Motocross Association National Championship.
Nicknamed Rude Pea—“because I never ride like a sweet pea”—Ashley is bringing women’s motocross racing out of the shadows of a traditionally male-dominated sport. As the first woman ever to grace the cover of the industry’s popular TransWorld Motocross magazine, she has her sights set on changing the face of women’s motocross by establishing the expectation that sponsors treat her with the same professionalism as her male peers. She’s gotten their attention.
ABILITY’s Chet Cooper, a pseudo-motocross rider, recently caught up with Ashley and her father while the two were in California testing her new Honda. A fierce competitor on the track, her persona off the track— replete with an infectious smile and a lot of laughter—is equally engaging. Through her father, who served as her interpreter, Ashley talks about the pros and cons of being a young rider and deaf athlete, about her education, and about whom she really wants to beat on the track!
Chet Cooper: You’ve become a huge name in motocross in a relatively short period. How long have you been riding?
Ashley Fiolek: Almost 11 years now. It’s been a long time.
Cooper: And you’re 12 now?
Fiolek: (laughter) I just turned 18.
Cooper: I’m an amateur, as evident by my bandages, (Ashley shows off a few of her war wounds, too) but I do follow the sport a bit. Congratulations on your new relationship with Honda!
Fiolek: Thanks! It’s very cool. I’m now part of the Honda Red Bull Racing team—the first girl to be on a factory team. It’s really awesome to have an opportunity to win more championships with them. It’s so important for girls to know that you can dream about something and, if you’re willing to work hard, your dreams can come true, just like mine did.
Cooper: How does being deaf affect the sport for you?
Fiolek: I don’t think that because I’m deaf I only have disadvantages. There are certainly advantages, too. If people are behind me, it doesn’t bother me. There’s no pressure from hearing their bikes, although I can see their shadows. The disadvantage is having to hold my line. I don’t want to switch lines abruptly because I’ll take somebody out. It all evens out.
Cooper: I can see how it would work both ways. How it can be a little bit of a disadvantage to keep your line, because you’d have to frequently turn to see if someone’s right behind you.
(Ashley’s dad takes a brief respite from interpreting to join in the conversation.)
Jim Fiolek: She watches the shadows on the track, or Cody, her mechanic, will tell her where they are.
Cooper: At what point in your career did you say, “I think this is something I’m actually good at and I need to give it my full attention?”
Fiolek: As soon as I started riding, I liked it. In 2004, I trained really hard and won the Loretta Lynn (Amateur National Motocross Championships). From then on, I knew I loved motocross and wanted to change some things in my life so I could really focus on it. I wanted to be a professional motocrosser, the best woman in the world. So my mom and dad helped me. I started to be home-schooled because I traveled a lot. Now I have a career doing what I love. It started a long time ago, in 2004.
Cooper: A long time ago?
Jim Fiolek: (laughs) A long, long time ago, 2004.
Cooper: It really is all relative! As far as I can remember, there aren’t that many great motocross tracks in Florida. Have you thought about moving to California?
Fiolek: Yeah. I would like to move here. Everything in motocross happens here, but there are a lot of distractions here as well. Maybe in the future. For now we come here and do what we need to do and then leave.
Cooper: So where do you practice?
Fiolek: Florida tracks have a lot of sand but no hills. You can get bored. I like to go to a lot of different tracks and experience different dirt, different elevations. I like to come here to California. I also ride a lot in Georgia. We go all over the US to try to get different experiences.
Jim Fiolek: I think if you spend too much time on the same track, you start to feel really good about yourself. You can get used to that track and become over confident. So we’ve always tried to keep Ashley on the move and keep her practices short so she doesn’t get used to a single track.
Cooper: There was a merge between you speaking as Ashley and you speaking for yourself. I almost missed it!
Jim Fiolek: (laughs) Yeah… (signing to Ashley) There was a merge between you finishing your sentence and then me wanting to add something more.
Cooper: Ashley, your father said you signed, ”I’m the best in the world and I always will be,” which was quickly followed up with “and I won’t date until I’m 35!”
Fiolek: What!? (laughs)
Jim Fiolek: I’m trying to keep it that way…
Cooper: Sorry Ashley, we have it on record.
Jim Fiolek: If I can keep it from happening, I will! (laughs) She needs to stay focused. Her ex-boyfriend was a pro-motocrosser too, so it worked out. They were both focused. They’re still very good friends and talk all the time.
Cooper: What happened?
Fiolek: He was mean. (laughter) No, I’m kidding.
Cooper: Can you beat him?
Fiolek: I want to beat him! That’s my goal! (laughs)
Cooper: Down the road, I bet you meet somebody on the track who makes your heart race. But it’s your father’s mission to put the brakes on.
Fiolek: (laughs) Maybe in the future. Right now I’m very focused on motocross and I’ve got a lot of stuff going on. I’m still very young, so I have time.
Jim Fiolek: (laughs) Excellent answer!
Cooper: You seem really calm and you have a great sense of humor. When you’re on the track, do you have a competitive alter ego that comes out?
Fiolek: I think so. Most people say that I’m funny, but when I’m racing I want to be the best at it, so I’m very focused. If we have to bump each other out on the track we do, but when we’re off the track we’re friends. That’s the way it should be.
Cooper: So you become very competitive. Do you feel that change in your temperament happening when you get on the bike?
Fiolek: Not really. I just go out and ride. Of course I want to have fun and I want to win. So every time I get on the bike, that’s what I’m trying to do.
Cooper: Does your competitive nature sneak into sports other than motocross?
Fiolek: (laughs) Yes! I’m a very competitive person. I always want to win at things. I’m into snowboarding lately and I always try to push myself. I live in Florida, so I can’t do it that much, but I always want to do my best.
Cooper: Where have you traveled for races?
Fiolek: I’ve gone to France, Italy, Bulgaria, the Netherlands and Japan. Here in the US, I’ve been pretty much everywhere. I really love traveling.
Cooper: When you started motocross, did you ever think you’d travel so much?
Fiolek: No. As an amateur I traveled a little. It started to pick up as I got better. Of course, as I started winning championships, my family and I traveled even more. And this year, now that I’m riding professionally, I’ve raced in a lot of different countries. It just gets bigger and bigger.
Cooper: As you travel from country to country, what challenges do you face trying to communicate with people who sign in different languages?
Fiolek: When I first went to Europe, people didn’t approach me. They waved and stuff, but they were a little shy. They didn’t know how to communicate with me.
Cooper: A lot of people assume that sign language is a universal language, and they aren’t aware that it is as varied as spoken languages. Have you seen different sign languages in the countries you visited?
Fiolek: When I travel, sometimes I meet deaf people and they try to talk to me. They don’t understand me and I don’t understand them. But it’s really cool that they have a different language.
Cooper: Have you ever been able to get an interpreter to translate their signs into American Sign Language?
Fiolek: Not yet. It’s usually pretty hectic and we just figure out different ways to communicate.
Cooper: Recently, I was invited on a Royal Caribbean cruise that catered to several thousand passengers who were deaf. At one point, I was sitting at a table with people from Korea, England, and the US. They had to interpret between Korean, American and English sign languages, which was all Greek to me because I don’t sign. But people got their message across, and it was great.
Fiolek: I’d love to go on one of those cruises.
Cooper: You should go. It’s a community coming together that you would never have a chance to meet on dry land. They were from all over the world. I think nearly 30 countries were represented.
Fiolek: Thirty different countries—that’s amazing! Because of T-Mobile I have been able to go to deaf expos and meet people from all over the US. That’s always a cool experience, so I can imagine how cool it would be to meet deaf people from all over the world.
Cooper: You had your phone out when we arrived. It used to be that people who were deaf or hard-of-hearing had to use TDD to communicate by phone. Obviously that’s very different from how things are now!
Fiolek: (laughs) I’ve been using a Sidekick forever! T-Mobile is a big sponsor of mine, and I’m very excited to have them. I get to go out and meet people at some of the ASL conferences that T-Mobile is a part of. It’s outside of motocross, but it’s really cool to get to meet people who are a part of my community.
Cooper: With so much going on, have you given much thought to college?
Fiolek: Right now I home school through Keystone National High School, which is an online high school in Pennsylvania. I’m trying to finish that up. Really, I’m completely focused on motocross. I have so many goals that I want to achieve. But when I’m done, yeah, I definitely want to go to college.
Cooper: How has Keystone’s program worked for you?
Fiolek: I left school when I was about 14. We heard about Keystone being a really good school and it has worked out. I get all my assignments and I can get a tutor online if I need one. I do my work and send it in, they check it, and then I test. It’s pretty much like normal school and it works with my travel needs.
Cooper: Have you looked into whether Gallaudet University offers online programs? Maybe you could start with some of its online courses?
Fiolek: I’ll have to check into that, but as soon as I finish high school I’m done for a while.
Jim Fiolek: We don’t want to shortchange her education, which happens a lot with elite athletes. We want to be very focused on her finishing high school, getting her diploma, and then moving onto college. She wants to be done with high school now, but her mother and I remind her: “You’re learning and as long as you’re learning you can move forward.” When she retires from racing, if she decides that she wants to be a normal kid again, she can go live the college life, which would be awesome. She can do whatever she wants.
Cooper: Pop quiz—let’s test your education! What’s the capital of Luxembourg?
Fiolek: (laughs) The capital of Luxembourg? I don’t know.
Cooper: (laughs) The only reason I know the answer is because Luxembourg is the capital of Luxembourg. It’s a small country that few people think about.
Jim Fiolek: Do you know about the Mini Olympics held in Florida every year?
Cooper: So the tables have turned and you’re asking the questions? Is the answer Tallahassee?
Jim Fiolek: (laughs) It’s the biggest amateur event in the world, and it’s been going on for 30 years. It gets 6,000 riders from 11 different countries. They did their take on “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader,” and called it “Are you smarter than a 50cc rider?” Those poor kids— the home-schooled kids—were struggling. They asked simple questions like, “What’s pi?” and the kids couldn’t answer.
Cooper: Apple, cherry …
Fiolek: (laughs) “Pie.” There you go!
Cooper: Today you have your father and your mechanic with you. Does your mother also travel?
Fiolek: Yeah, she just doesn’t like to fly that much. But she is at every race and every event that we go to. She was just here.
Jim Fiolek: Her mom flew home last night. We have a five-year-old boy, and he’s got to get home. All this traveling can become too much for him. My wife is the one who makes everything happen for Ashley’s program. She arranges everything from PR to tickets, and I work with Ashley on the motorcycle.
Cooper: Are you her manager?
Jim Fiolek: Kind of. I have a job; I’m a software developer. Although I don’t know how much longer I’m going to have it! We’re on the road a lot, and that gets in the way of my work. I expect that I might be doing this more full-time. (laughter) Ashley also has two agents who handle her off-bike career. We’re trying to bring in other companies like Revlon and Neutrogena.
Cooper: (laughs) Ashley, does your brother sign?
Fiolek: He signs a lot; he’s good.
Cooper: If you went to college, what would your major be?
Fiolek: I write a monthly column for TransWorld Motocross magazine. I enjoy writing, taking pictures, doing videos. That’s probably what I would study.
Cooper: Really? Why don’t you come here and take over the video?
Fiolek: (laughs) I only make funny videos with my friends.
Cooper: Did TransWorld Motocross come to you or did you approach them about writing a column?
Fiolek: I’m good friends with Donn Maeda, the editor. He came to my house and interviewed me many years ago; we became very good friends. Over time he started an Internet column called “Ashley’s Sidekick.” That was years ago. After a while, he asked me to write in the magazine.
Cooper: I’ve read your columns, and you’re a great writer. We’d love for you to contribute to this magazine!
Fiolek: That would be very cool. I would be very excited to be a part of that, for sure.
Cooper: Interestingly enough, and likely in part because of my personal love of motorsports, you’ll see there are actually a lot of things around motorcycles and motocross already in ABILITY. Do you know Ricky James, the motocross rider who has paraplegia?
Fiolek: He’s a very good friend of mine.
Jim Fiolek: He’s a very inspirational kid.
Cooper: Last time I saw him, he was riding in Lake Elsinore. Have you ridden with him?
Fiolek: Many times. He goes so fast.
Cooper: He does, doesn’t he! I’m glad to hear you think he’s fast.
Jim Fiolek: I heard yesterday that he’s going even faster now. I think it was in August that we last rode with him, and they said that now he’s just going super-fast. He passed a pro-racer in the corner; he’s on it.
Cooper: I’m still faster than him.
Jim Fiolek (to Ashley): You’re gonna have your hands full riding with Chet later! (laughs)
Cooper: The stupid part of that joke is that, in a few minutes, you’re going to see just how slow I am! (laughter) You have talked quite a bit about your competitiveness. Do you set limits for yourself or will you try anything?
Fiolek: I would try anything, but—
Jim Fiolek: She has respect for motorcycles. You’re not going to last very long in this sport if you’re wide open all the time and try anything. Ashley has limits. She knows that she has to keep pushing, but we try to do it as safely as possible. There’s times when there’s a jump she wants to try, and I’ll say, “We’re not doing that.” That doesn’t mean she always listens. (laughter) But there’s also those times when I think we need to try a jump, and she says, “Look, I’m not comfortable doing that.” And we don’t do it. It’s easy to make bad decisions, but we want to have some longevity. I think Ashley’s one of the smartest riders on the track. She knows what she needs to do, and that’s kind of how we leave it.
Cooper: Except for the fact that she doesn’t know the capital of Luxembourg.
Fiolek: I do now!
Read Part II of this interview in the next issue, where Ashley and her father will discuss how her parents first discovered that she was deaf, the rise of her racing career and her Hollywood debut.