Despite being deaf, the teen motocross rider won four national championships, two X Games gold medals, and overcame expectations in a male-dominated sport.

Mud-spattered and dripping sweat beneath her helmet, the motorbike rider flew, full throttle open, around the track. The roar of the engine was overwhelming as she blasted across the finish line to win the race. The crowd added to the cacophony, jumping to their feet, screaming her name: Ashley! Ashley!

But Ashley Fiolek could not hear them. She was totally deaf.

Fiolek had been deaf since birth, although her parents didn’t know it until she was about 3 years old. When they noticed their daughter seemed disengaged from things around her and very slow to speak, they took her to specialists, who floated the notion that the child might be “a little slow.”

But the truth was revealed when her mother, Roni, dropped a stack of pots and pans as Fiolek played nearby. Though the noise resounded throughout the house,  Fiolek didn’t react. Roni snuck up behind her daughter with two metal pan lids and banged them together behind her head like a pair of cymbals. When the toddler didn’t flinch, Roni knew her little girl couldn’t hear.

After tests confirmed her profound deafness, the family learned American Sign Language and Fiolek’s developmental difficulties disappeared. Although she had been reading lips all along, Sign Language gave her the ability to connect with people and respond.

What interested Fiolek most was racing motorcycles. Her grandfather and father raced, and she’d grown up riding on the handlebars of her father’s bike before graduating to her own pee-wee version at age 3 and a half. She was a speed demon, fearless and unstoppable from the start.

Motocross racer Tara Gieger with Ashley Fiolek. Photo by Gerald Geronimo/Flickr

When Fiolek was 8, the family relocated to enroll her in the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind. The reason for the relocation was twofold: Fiolek could meet other kids just like her and have excellent weather year-round for motocross practice. 

Motocross was like dirt bike racing on steroids. Riders zoomed around on rough tracks studded with jumps, inclines, and many bumps, as fast as possible, in an attempt to beat the other racers to the finish line.

Motocross is a dangerous sport and many riders get injured, some so badly that they don’t walk away from the track. Riders need every safety feature available—helmets, steel-toed boots, neck braces, and their eyes and ears to make split-second decisions about conditions on the track. Because of her hearing impairment, Fiolek was missing one of those traditional safeguards.

Because she couldn’t hear a challenger coming up behind her, Fiolek’s father, Jim, toyed with the idea of rigging lights to her bike to alert his daughter to the presence of another rider. But they proved too distracting. Instead, Fiolek taught herself to watch for shadows on the track. She also couldn’t rely on the increasing whine of the engine to know when to shift gears, so she learned to let the vibration of the engine alert her.

Being different didn’t bother Fiolek. All she ever wanted to do was race. 

One day, she announced to her school principal that she would be a pro-motocross racer and one day compete against men. She once turned up to class with her hair dyed pink, explaining that she wanted boy racers to know at a glance that they had been beaten by a girl.

The Fiolek family became “motocross gypsies,” living out of the back of a pickup truck so their racer could compete all over the country. Jim built her a motocross track in his backyard, which Fiolek practiced on for four hours a day, perfecting her signature move, “scrubbing,” where she twisted the bike in midair until it was parallel to the ground. The move shaved seconds of her time in a race, but it was dangerous. Fiolek broke her arm, both wrists, her ankle, nose, and her collarbone over the years. 

Nothing deterred her; Fiolek raced in mud up over her ankles and in weather so cold that her fingers went blue in her gloves.

Her love of the sport drove her on, but one thing bothered her about motocross. As amateurs, girls and boys raced each other, but by the time racers went pro, motocross segregated women and men.

Prize money and sponsorships were larger for men. Every rider wanted to attract famous motorbike manufacturers as a sponsor so that they could become “factory riders” because, with the manufacturers picking up all their expenses, they could finally get paid to participate in the sport they loved. No more no-chain motels and cold take-out food on the road; factory riders lived like kings.

However, there were no “queens” of motocross and no female factory riders. Women also earned less money, had less practice time on the track, and their races were shorter. Many people believed female riders would never be as good as men. 

Fiolek vowed that she would not only to go pro and become a national champion, but she’d become the first American woman to be factory rider (though she had been receiving support from American Honda since 2004).

Fiolek went on to win the biggest amateur race in the country and, at age 17, turned pro and captured the WMA championship the following year. The next year she made a repeat performance, crossing the finish line despite a broken collarbone.

Fiolek’s stunts on the track helped put women’s motocross on the map, but she wanted the sport to get even more exposure.

So when the X Games, which featured the best of extreme sports, added women’s motocross to its schedule in 2008. Millions worldwide would be watching and Fiolek knew that this was her chance to prove that the womens’ event could be as exciting as the mens’. She competed in the 2009 and 2010 games, winning consecutive gold medals. 

As she rode the practice track for the X Games on June 2, 2011, Fiolek crashed her bike while doing a triple jump. Her neck brace had broken in two places and blood pooled in the mud around her. Her horrified parents carried her off the track and no one knew whether she’d compete again. Miraculously, Fiolek was only slightly injured and, on July 7, she competed in the AMA Women’s Motocross Championship, also known as the WMX Title. 

While Fiolek would lose to Jessica Patterson, the five-time reigning national champion, that July, the two faced off again in the final race on Sept. 11, 2011. Fiolek was ready; all the blood, sweat and tears had led to this moment. As the race began, Fiolek could feel Patterson on her rear bumper at every turn. Yet Fiolek pulled through, beating Patterson. Fiolek could feel the ground shake as the crowd came to its feet, applauding and cheering. She turned to the podium and read the announcer’s lips as he said, “Ashley Fiolek is the new WMX Champion!”

In 2012, at the age of 21, Fiolek retired with four national championships, two X Games gold medals, and her cherished spot on Team Honda Red Bull. She now devotes her time to coaching other young Motocross racers at the Ashley Fiolek MX School, where she uses an interpreter to translate her wisdom to the next generation. Founded in 2015, Fiolek’s MX School helps riders at all skill levels with professional techniques and customized training locations.

Yet students aren’t the only people who can benefit from Fiolek’s insight and coaching. In 2010, Fiolek released a memoir titled Kicking Up Dirt: A True Story of Determination, Deafness, and Daring. That daring empowered Fiolek to kick down the door a male-dominated sport, and allowed women riders to drive right in.