This story appears in the June 15 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
It's too damn quiet in Ashley Fiolek's red Ford F-150.
The radio is silent and the windows are up, muting the road noise. Her hands at 10 and 2, Fiolek is focused on the road, and that means no texting, no cell phone, not so much as a glance at herself in the rearview on this sultry mid-March afternoon. During the entire 13-minute drive to Joey's, a private track in her hometown of St. Augustine, Fla., the 18-year-old motocross pro says nothing. Then again, she's deaf, and she would need her hands to talk.
The silence disappears shortly after Fiolek parks next to the track and unloads her 249cc Honda dirt bike. She's the only rider kicking up dirt today, but the bike's constant braaaaap plugs the spaces between all the air molecules. Fiolek tears around the track, a red-white-and-blue blur carving up earth tones, while mechanic Cody Wolf watches from a lawn chair in the center. Fiolek is working on cornering today.
After a few laps, Fiolek slows and pulls to the side. She sits for a moment on the motionless bike, her long, sandy hair sneaking out below her helmet. The fastest woman racer in the country is tiny, at 5-foot-2, 105 pounds, and she balances the bike on one foot because she's not tall enough to reach the ground with two. "Isn't it so peaceful out here," she signs to Wolf. Her wide smile, visible through her full-face helmet, suggests this is more statement than question. Wolf translates and laughs at the irony. Fiolek misses the joke.
To Fiolek, the track is peaceful, and on race day the silence is perhaps her greatest asset. "I am more focused," Fiolek signs. She's home now after a two-hour practice, in the living room of her family's modest three-bedroom place at the end of a gravel road. Her mom, Roni, translates: "Before a race, I can't hear people talking smack to me or bothering me at the line." And when the flag drops, she can't hear the blare of other bikes, the track announcer or crowd noise. "If somebody is coming up behind me, I don't have the pressure of knowing they're there. But if I'm coming up on someone, they have that pressure." There are times, Fiolek adds, when she doesn't even know what place she's in when she finishes. In her first race as a pro on the Women's Motocross Association circuit, last May, Fiolek crossed the line and looked at Wolf. On the pit board he had written, "You won!" "I didn't even know," says Fiolek.
The rookie went on to win three of the next five races and upset five-time champ Jessica Patterson for the WMA title. (Fiolek opened the 2009 season on May 23 with a win at Glen Helen Raceway in San Bernardino, Calif.) She reached the podium twice in four races at the women's world championship series last summer in Europe. She's the only woman rider to be featured on the cover of a major U.S. motocross magazine (Transworld Motocross, December 2008). And in January, Honda Red Bull Racing signed her to its motocross team, making her the first American woman with a factory ride. For 2009, she wants even more. "I want to qualify for a men's race," says Fiolek. "Sometimes I go on the message boards and see people say that I won't do it, that no girl would ever qualify with the men. I get so mad." Not everyone agrees with those posts. Says James Stewart, two-time AMA Supercross champ: "I wouldn't be surprised if she qualifies. She's already overcome harder challenges."
Despite Fiolek's success, though, no one would say that being deaf is all checkered flags and quiet comfort. Her inability to hear her bike creates serious challenges; sound is an essential element of dirt bike racing. By listening to their bikes, riders know when to shift, when they have a mechanical problem and when they've made a mistake, such as accidentally bumping the shift lever into neutral while twisting the throttle to accelerate, which causes the engine to rev wildly. Instead of using sound as a guide, Fiolek has learned to shift gears and diagnose mechanical glitches by vibrations that travel from the engine to her body. "If she comes to me in the pits and says, 'The clutch feels weird in my hand,' I have learned to listen to her," Wolf says. "It's often a tiny adjustment, but she feels everything."
It's neutral that gives her hell.
"If other people accidentally hit neutral, they hear it," Fiolek says. "I can't, and it is hard to feel." The mistake is a common one for riders, especially when they're slamming through difficult turns and rhythm sections, such as whoops and triples. "Oh yeah. I've flipped over the bars a few times because of bad shifts," Fiolek says.
To compensate, she spends a lot of practice time perfecting this basic skill. And it shows.
"I don't think the casual fan appreciates Ashley as much as someone who has ridden a motorcycle," says Fiolek's teammate Andrew Short, who finished third in the 2009 AMA Supercross series. "The first time I saw her ride, I expected her to shift too early or too late. But she always keeps the bike in the meat of the power. It's baffling how perfectly she shifts." Fiolek's deftness may baffle Short, but it's not a surprise to those who understand how a body compensates for an inability to hear. "Because she was born deaf, Ashley knows only one way to perceive the world," says Waheeda Samady, who treats the deaf as a resident physician at Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego. "Her other senses, like her vision and sensitivity to vibration, are more finely tuned than those of a hearing person. If we have full use of all of our senses, we don't know how to block one out to focus on another. But Ashley is able to do that."
In short, Fiolek relies on certain signals more acutely than hearing riders do. "Those sensations are available to everyone, but on most of us they're lost," says moto-Xer Drake McElroy, who spent 15 years racing motocross before switching to freestyle. "The motor sends vibrations up through the frame to the levers, from the soles of your feet to the insides of your legs to your torso and hands. Each contact point has a different vibration. Everybody feels it, we're just not in tune to it."
For Fiolek, riding a motorcycle has always "just felt right." When she was 7, her dad, Jim, a former motocross racer, took the training wheels off her 50cc bike. "She rode for three hours that day," he says. "Later, when she switched from bikes with automatic transmissions to manual, people wanted us to install a red light on her bike so she would know when to shift. But we never put an emphasis on the fact that shifting would be harder for her or talked about her limitations. We didn't think she had any."
When word spread that a deaf rider had joined St. Augustine's amateur motocross circuit, parents of Fiolek's competitors reacted as expected. Some worried she would not be able to hear their kids riding closely behind her, while others balked at the idea that Jim and Roni would allow their deaf daughter to ride. Says Roni: "I told them, 'It's a dangerous sport. You can be concerned that I'm putting my kid on a motorcycle. But not that I'm putting my deaf kid on a bike.'"
Most concerns disappeared the instant the other parents saw Fiolek ride: Even as a 7-year-old, she was careful. And fast. "When Ashley was young, we had a lot of conversations about exiting the track and riding safely," Jim says. "We did more drills, more training. I don't worry about Ashley. She's probably a safer rider than most anyone on the track."
Later, when doctors asked if they would be interested in cochlear implants -- electronic devices placed behind the ear that can provide hearing sensation even for people with profound deafness, such as Ashley -- the Fioleks said no. Cochlears would have made contact sports such as motocross more hazardous because the implant site would be vulnerable to a blow. But mostly, the Fioleks didn't believe their daughter was broken, so there was no need to fix her.
Sure, the Fioleks tried the traditional deaf child route. When Ashley was young, the family moved from Michigan to St. Augustine so she could attend the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, where she played hoops, ran track and took ballet classes. But when Ashley reached ninth grade, her parents pulled her from FSDB to home-school her because they felt she was being taught that deafness was a limitation. "The deaf schools hold students back," says Roni, who was an instructional assistant at the school. "Too many kids grew up thinking something was wrong with them."
The Fioleks think the opposite. Being deaf may present challenges, but why not focus on the advantages? The Fioleks have long believed that many deaf athletes have physical tools to compete in sports but lack opportunity and a knowledgeable coach fluent in sign language. With her father as her coach, Ashley has both. "If a coach can't communicate, he can't teach the sport," says Donalda Ammons, president of the Deaflympics, an event modeled after the Winter and Summer Games. "The children might have great athletic talent, but they're stuck. They grow up frustrated because they know they have the talent to be exceptional." Because few mainstream programs can afford knowledgeable interpreters, only a handful of deaf athletes -- former NFL defensive linemen Bonnie Sloan and Kenny Walker, MLB journeyman Curtis Pride, Olympic swimmer Terence Parkin of South Africa, to name four -- have reached the elite level. Count Ashley Fiolek among them.
If her cell phone bill is any proof, Fiolek has blossomed into a mini celebrity. Her address book is packed with names and numbers, and she communicates endlessly via text, IM, e-mail, MySpace and Facebook messages. "I send about 1,000 texts in a day," says Fiolek, scooping up a handful of M&M's from a bowl on the living room table. That means she's averaging a text every minute she's awake. (The average U.S. teen texts about 35 times a day.) Example:
Got my new puppy today! Turbo! He's freaking adorable. :) Very playful n hyper. Haha!
Fiolek sits on the front porch of her home, her feet dangling over the edge. Her bike is parked in the garage out back, and she is still wearing riding pants and a purple T-shirt more than three hours after her March practice ended. She tries to describe the day's riding session, but little brother Kicker, freshly home from preschool, keeps launching a broken scooter off the porch and onto the grass three feet below, screaming the whole time. Cody is trying to translate Fiolek's conversation, but he's constantly interrupted because it's also his job to catch Kicker before he smashes into the ground. Fiolek is oblivious to the commotion -- until she notices her mom's face; Roni looks as if she's about to lose her mind. "Sometimes, I bet everyone wishes they were deaf," Ashley signs, then smiles.
This time, she's in on the joke.
Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.