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Ashley Fiolek Read by Kealia Ohai

About the Episode

Once upon a time, there was a girl who became a motocross champion. Her name was Ashley Fiolek. While growing up, Ashley’s parents knew their daughter loved motorcycles but did not know why she would not speak. It turned out that Ashley was completely deaf! So, the whole family learned sign language and, when she was old enough, traveled around with Ashley to her motocross competitions. Though Ashley couldn’t hear the rumble of her bike, she could feel the vibrations of the engine as if the machinery were a part of her. Ashley risked scrapes, broken bones, and worse—proving her determination and drive to make it to the finish line.

Get to Know Kealia Mae Ohai

Kealia Mae Ohai is an American soccer player. She captains the Houston Dash and has appeared with the United States women’s national soccer team. Prior to her professional career, she was a member of the University of North Carolina’s 2012 NCAA championship-winning team and scored the single winning goal in the 2012 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Final.

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Transcript

Once upon a time there was a girl who loved motorcycles. Her name was Ashley.

On weekends, Ashley rode on the gas tank of her father’s motorbike, bumping down the winding dirt roads snaking through the woods of Michigan. She loved the feel of the bike’s warmth and power, the rush of the wind whipping past her face, the way the light sparkled through the trees as she and her father sped together down the trail.

Every weekend, rain, snow, or shine, Ashley and her parents drove three hours from their home in Dearborn Heights to the forest where her grandfather had a little cabin overlooking a dirt motorcycle track. When Ashley was just 3-and-a-half, she got a bike of her very own—complete with training wheels. For hours, she rode around and around the little dirt track, tumbling off every few minutes, scrambling back on as soon as she could.

By the time Ashley was five, the dirt track had lost its appeal, and she wanted to get out in the woods where the real fun was. She wasn’t sitting on her dad’s bike anymore—she was on her own.

From the outside, what people saw was a girl riding her bike. What they didn’t know, was that the bike was speaking to Ashley in a language only she could understand. She felt the bike’s vibrations in her hands, her legs, her toes. 

But the roar of the engine? She could not hear it.

 

SHOW INTRO

 <THEME MUSIC>

 I’m Lowri Morgan. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. 

A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women that inspire us.

This week: Ashley Fiolek. 

<END THEME MUSIC>

 

EARLY LIFE

From the beginning, Ashley was a busy, boisterous child. But as she grew older, her parents realized there was something different about her. The other children she played with were chattering away in full sentences, but Ashley never said a word.

Her parents took her to the local hospital for testing, but when the specialists tried to sit Ashley down, she squirmed away. She hated sitting still!

The doctors told Ashley’s parents that there was something wrong with her brain, and she would never be as intelligent as other children. The Fioleks knew the doctors were wrong, but they still didn’t know why she would not speak.

And then one day, Ashley was playing on the floor when her mom, Roni, dropped a big stack of pots and pans. Crash! They fell to the floor with a startling bang—but Ashley didn’t seem to notice. How strange, her mother thought.

Roni scooped two pans off the floor, crept up behind her daughter and— BANG—clanged the skillets together as loud as she could. And still the little girl kept playing as if she hadn’t heard a thing. 

At that moment, Roni realized it wasn’t that Ashley couldn’t understand the world around her. She simply couldn’t hear it.

At first, there were a lot of tears, but now at least they knew what was going on when their daughter seemed so withdrawn from the world around her. The puzzle they’d agonized over had finally been solved. 

 

LEARNING TO TALK

More tests at the University of Michigan hospital confirmed what her parents already suspected: Ashley was completely deaf. This didn’t mean she couldn’t communicate with the world. She just needed a new way to do it.

A doctor showed Ashley a picture of milk, and squeezed his hand as if he were milking a cow. That was the word “milk” in sign language. Ashley had never felt so happy. She had been reading lips since she was a tiny toddler. Now, finally, she could express herself, too!

Ashley’s parents learned sign language so the family could talk together. They even invented their own signs. When their daughter started getting too excited or antsy, Roni would take her hand and walk her fingers across Ashley’s palm until they fell off the side. 

Ashley knew what that meant: she was over the edge.

 

FLORIDA RACING

When Ashley was eight years old, she and her parents decided to move from Michigan to Florida. The state had everything they could want: sunshine, a school for Ashley: the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind and, best of all, great tracks for motorcycle racing. 

She went from being one of the few deaf kids in school to one of hundreds and joined all sorts of sports teams: soccer, track, volleyball—anything to keep moving. And on weekends, she competed in her favorite sport of all: motocross.

In motocross, riders race against each other on rough dirt tracks full of bumps, jumps, and steep hills. Ashley had started competing as soon as the training wheels came off her bike.

Being deaf meant that Ashley had to do some things differently than other riders. She couldn’t hear a challenger coming up behind her, so she watched the shadows on the track to see if someone was approaching. She couldn’t listen for changes in the engine to know when to shift gears, so she felt for subtle vibrations in her bike to sense the gear shift that would make it go faster. 

When Ashley got ready for a race, she pulled on thick canvas and leather pants to protect her legs from the heat of the bike’s engine, and a long-sleeved jersey to guard her arms from the rocks kicked up by other riders’ wheels. She laced up steel-toed boots and tucked her long blond hair into a helmet that covered her face, with a brace protecting her neck.

Every weekend, the Fioleks joined hundreds of spectators to watch Ashley compete, anxiously awaiting daring jumps, breathtaking speeds, and equally spectacular wipeouts. Motocross racers suffered concussions and broken bones all the time. Even experienced riders could be paralyzed or killed during a fall. 

Racing was risky, but Ashley wasn’t afraid. She raced on days so wet that the track turned slick with mud, or so cold that her fingers went numb in their gloves, or so hot that riders around her collapsed from the heat. 

All of it was worth it to Ashley. Motocross was in her blood.

 

UNFAIR PLAY

Ashley loved watching racing events, especially the professional ones. But as she watched her favorite riders, something bothered Ashley. As amateurs, boys and girls competed against each other in races. But when it was time to go pro, motocross became a very different sport for men and women.

Professional male racers got more prize money and bigger sponsors. They got paid to pose for advertisements for better bikes and gear. The very best ones—the racers Ashley admired most—were called “factory riders.” That meant that the big motorbike manufacturers supported their careers and paid them to compete.

Women didn’t get any of this. Women got less prize money, less practice time, and shorter races; they even had to park their bikes farther away than the men did. Some people even said that women shouldn’t ride motorcycles at all: that they’d never be able to ride as boldly as the men.

Ashley made a promise to herself: she was going to become a professional motocross racer. She would be a national champion. She would be the first woman to compete on a factory bike. And she was going to change the sport for good.

 

HARD WORK

Ashley decided to leave traditional school behind and try homeschooling. She was only in ninth grade, but she was on the road so much that she hardly ever made it to class. The other kids at school couldn’t understand why anyone would leave high school to race motorcycles. Ashley tried to explain. 

“This is me—motocross is what I am,” she signed. “I am doing this because one day, I am going to be a professional motocross racer.”

Her closest friends were other riders. It didn’t matter if they spoke with their mouths and she spoke with her hands. Pro racers like Elizabeth Bash and Sarah Whitmore became her best friends. They even learned some sign language. On the track, they pushed her to race her hardest. Off the track, they made each other laugh! Ashley’s favorite joke was to grab her friends’ headphones and pop them into her ears, then dance around like she was hearing the music, too.

At last, the first race of her first professional season arrived. In the distance a marshall waved a green flag, and Ashley and her competitors were off. Ashley fought hard, passing top women riders one after another. Finally, the only person left between her and first place was her best friend, Sarah. It was hard, but the two riders always pushed one another to do their best. Ashley knew what she had to do.  

When she crossed the finish line, her mechanic held up a sign—YOU WON! 

Ashley’s professional career was off to a fantastic start. Now her eyes were on the biggest prize of all: the national championship title. Winning would make Ashley the number one women’s rider in America. She would have to win enough events in the championship series,  going up against some of the fastest, toughest riders in the country.

But every race and practice session also brought danger. One bad crash could mean an injury that would end her season—and maybe even her whole career.

 

X GAMES

Then, in the middle of the season, Ashley got some exciting news. Women’s motocross was going to be in the X Games for the first time, and she had been asked to participate!

The X Games track was tougher and more challenging than the ones Ashley typically raced on, with ramps, obstacles, and bone rattling jumps everywhere. She was a little worried—was it worth risking her safety in the middle of the season?

Millions of people around the world watched the X Games on TV. If Ashley raced, she could prove to them that women’s motocross was just as thrilling as men’s. She shook off her fears and headed out to the practice track.

On the practice track, she accelerated into a triple jump just like the one she’d face at the main event. But Ashley’s motorcycle wasn’t properly adjusted for a course this intense. Her bike went flying, and she crashed violently to earth.

The mud around her turned red with blood. Her neck brace was broken in two places. Had she broken her back? Was she paralyzed? Or something even worse? 

Her parents carried her off the track. Ashley was badly cut and bruised and wouldn’t be able to compete in X Games events the following day—if she didn’t rest and heal soon, there would be no season championship either.

 

CHAMPION

Just a month later, crowds gathered under a brilliant blue sky in Pennsylvania for the last race in the championship series.

And Ashley was at the starting line.

She revved her engine as she waited nervously for the starting gate to drop, thinking of all of the wins and falls that had brought her to this point. She was ready.

The gates dropped. Ashley sped out in front—but Jessica Patterson, the four-time reigning national champion and her toughest rival, was right behind her.

The race was neck-in-neck. She couldn’t hear the motor, but Ashley could feel Jessica gaining speed behind her. She could feel how intensely her competitor wanted to win, and this was the toughest race of her career.

Ashley was ahead. Then Jessica led the pack. Ashley took the lead again, but Jessica tailed Ashley until the final lap.  It took all the strength Ashley had to hang on and keep her speed. All those years of training, all the broken bones, all the mud and sweat—it was all pushing her onward now.

Ashley sailed across the finish line and Jessica’s bike crashed to the earth behind her.  

Ashley couldn’t hear the crowd, but she could feel that something was different. The hair on her arms stood up. There was a new energy around her. And when she got off her motorcycle and removed her helmet, she was surrounded by people and flashbulbs. 

The sight almost overwhelmed her: hundreds of faces, cameras, bright signs, and fists pumping in the air. A man with a microphone stepped up onto the podium and Ashley read his lips as he announced: Ashley Fiolek, WMA Champion. Her dream had come true.

 

FACTORY RIDER

Ashley could hardly wait for the next season to start, but first Ronnie had some news for her.

Back home in Florida during a family dinner, her mother slid a picture across the table of a beautiful, top-of-the-line Honda motorcycle—one of the nicest bikes Ashley had ever seen.

“This is your next motorcycle,” her mother signed. Honda wanted Ashley to be one of their factory riders—the first woman ever invited to an American factory team.

From now on, she would ride a top-notch motorcycle custom built just for her.

From now on Honda, and not the Fioleks, would foot the bill for her racing career.

And, for the first time, a woman would make a real living as a professional racer.

Ashley retired in 2012. Though she was only 21, she was already one of the greatest women’s motocross riders of all time, with four national championships, two X Games gold medals, and a spot on Team Honda.

She doesn’t race anymore, but she’s still making her mark on the sport. Today, Ashley coaches young motorcyclists all over the United States, with an interpreter at her side translating her advice from sign language. And she still loves getting out on her bike and riding through the woods, just the way she used to when she was a little girl, back before Ashley Fiolek became a champion.

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