Fighting for the right to compete

Imagine competing in a sport where most venue blueprints don't include a women's bathroom, a sport that required its first female athlete to dress as a man in order to make it into the arena, a sport in which women not only line up against men in every competition, but also beat them regularly. To Ashley Freiberg, a professional racecar driver living in Bondville, this thought experiment is reality. I had the pleasure of sitting down to coffee with her last week and am blown away by her story of perseverance and inspired by her success.

What immediately struck me about Freiberg was her age. At 21, she races for the TrueCar Racing Women Empowered Initiative and has won multiple races and series, while also actively representing female athletes through work with several charitable foundations. Freiberg began kart racing when she was 13 and won her first national title at 17. That means that she entered a sport in which she had to constantly defend being a woman while she was still in the process of becoming one.

"It's helped me treat others without judging," she said of the experience, "I understand what it's like to be discriminated against." Freiberg has more than a casual understanding of gender discrimination, on and off the track. She told me of several instances in which male competitors will drive aggressively for no reason, doing things like blocking her out or cornering her into a barricade, just to make a point.

Her reactions to these kinds of maneuvers are resilient and professional.

"When someone has you up against wall, you just have to show them: I'm not moving," she said.

She told me that from the start, competing against men was just a part of the game. Her male opponents usually get more wrapped up in her gender than she does, especially once she started winning.

"I love to inspire other people, especially young girls," she told me after I asked her about the best part of standing atop a traditionally male podium. "When I see young girls at a track, they remind me of myself. I'm doing it for them. We need more women out there."

As we continued our interview, I couldn't help but comment on our similar athletic experiences. Walking in, I never could have drawn a parallel between professional car racing and Nordic skiing. Instead, I found a great deal of solidarity with this woman doing just what I do: competing as a female athlete.

Like me, she trains full time, lifting, running and practicing her coordination and mental fortitude. She spends hours practicing with race simulators (because the cost to actually drive is far too high), and makes a point to tune the details, like mental focus and eye reactivity. Her fitness allowed her to race the New York Marathon last weekend after only a month of formal training.

In order to withstand the gravitational forces of a racecar (one turn can essentially multiply a driver's experience of gravity by five) and endure the heat of the car (over 120 degrees), Freiberg maintains a steady regimen of strength and aerobic training. Such tough conditions were used as an excuse to keep women out of racing in the early days of the sport, as men stated that the female frame could not withstand any such stress. Freiberg has proven otherwise.

I asked her how she approached the expectation of being female and that of being an athlete. In my experience, it seems that many female athletes struggle with the ideological crossroads of identifying both as female and athletically competitive. Some prefer to compensate with visual and vocal flashes of femininity, others abandon the cultural female ideal altogether.

Essentially, I asked Freiberg which comes first: female or driver?

"Driver, hands down," she responded without hesitation. "I'm a strong believer that people are people."

She said that when they line up for a race, she and her competitors are not men and women, they are people. They are drivers. At this point in the interview, I had to have had an embarrassing large smile plastered to my face. Then she proceeded to describe what it's like to sit behind a wheel for 45 minutes driving at max speed and I was hooked, head over heals, completely in love with this girl, or, rather, her approach to racing.

"You get lost in it," she started, "It demands all of your focus. You get so lost in the moment you become one with your car. I love getting lost in it, knowing that I'm driving on the limit is extremely satisfying."

"Scary limit." I commented. She shrugged and corrected herself.

"A lot of people think driving racecars is a really risky thing, like you're fighting for your life the entire time. In reality, it's like a chess game on wheels; you're strategizing and thinking ahead - it's more of a delicate task, and in some ways it's quite peaceful."

She nailed it. She had described the feelings I've had on my racecourses, tracks and soccer fields. They are those that appear on gym floors, pool waters and clay courts everywhere. That peace, that nirvana, that can only be found at the height of competition, when you've got nothing left to give, that's what we're fighting for.

Ashley Freiberg understands the fight. Every year, she fights for the right to compete without discrimination not only on the track, but also for sponsorships and endorsements.

To afford to compete, she must raise at least $1 million and hope that nothing serious goes wrong mechanically. It seems the driving is the easy part; her chances of winning those competitions far outweigh those outside of the track.

Pursuing your passion is particularly challenging when society doesn't believe in it.

"There are so many possibilities for me," Freiberg said. "I've been able to prove through my racing that I can defy what others think is not right."

She will continue to do so. I think I'll make that my plan, too.


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