Eugene Laverty: I had a horror crash 11 days before my wedding... but nothing was going to stop me marrying Pippa
Motorbike ace Eugene Laverty on secretly battling through the pain barrier on his happiest day... and how he and his wife will finally have a honeymoon
The best day of Eugene Laverty's life was also the most painful. It was the day he'd been counting down to; the day he'd walk down the aisle with Pippa, the love of his life.
Everything had been meticulously planned, but there was one thing the happy couple hadn't factored in... the groom-to-be being involved in a horrific high-speed crash just 11 days before the big day.
Some motorcycle racing fans think their heroes are indestructible - but Eugene's body was badly damaged when he came off his Ducati at 160mph during a practice run in Jerez, Spain, on Thursday, November 26, 2015.
Apart from sustaining a savage blow to the head, the Toomebridge man fractured his right wrist, his shoulder and a thoracic vertebra in his back.
He underwent surgery in a Barcelona hospital, where medics told him not to worry - and that he should be fully recovered by the time the MotoGP tests got under way in February the following year.
There was, of course, a more pressing engagement scheduled for Dromoland Castle in Co Clare on Monday, December 7.
Eugene had promised Pippa Morson, his partner of 10 years, that nothing would ruin the big day and he was true to his word - but, until now, no one except Pippa was aware of what he went through to fulfil that promise.
"I had no painkillers on the day of the wedding," the 30-year-old revealed.
"I was stubborn, and I kept telling myself that I wasn't in big pain.
"Looking back, it was probably a bit daft of me but I was determined to walk up that aisle to where Pippa was waiting - and, to me, that was worth the pain."
Monaco-based Eugene clearly did a good job disguising his discomfort because, on the day, the only apparent worry was whether or not the guests would make it to the venue through atrocious weather conditions.
Thankfully, they did, and the couple's first day as Mr and Mrs Laverty was a memorable one, not least because Eugene could manage to hold up a glass for the toasts - quite an achievement for someone with a shattered wrist.
"In the week leading up to the wedding I was determined to get myself in the best possible condition," he recalled.
"I wasn't able to drink because one shoulder was busted and the other hand was in bad shape... a week later, however, I thought it was great that I had two hands working.
"For someone with my injuries, that counted as great progress. The aim was to be able to hold a glass of Champagne at my wedding reception.
"The week before everyone had been sitting down having a glass of wine and I had to drink mine through a straw.
"I thought 'that's no good on my wedding day', and, luckily, I managed to get into good enough shape to have that glass..." The Lavertys say they're blissfully happy with married life, but Eugene's job comes with bumps in the road - sometimes literally - and within an hour of being back on his bike in Malaysia last February he came off again.
"That was as big a crash as the one in November," he said.
"The brakes failed so I had to jump off the bike, but, fortunately, I didn't break anything this time."
So he's going to take it easy in the run-up to the much-delayed honeymoon on the idyllic Caribbean island of St Lucia, which is scheduled for early December?
"Not at all. I'll just carry on as always," he laughed.
"Pippa is probably holding her breath... she's been telling me to be careful but she knows it's part and parcel of the job I do.
"I'm really looking forward to the honeymoon, though. It's a nice time of year for a holiday. We'll probably just relax and switch off before looking towards 2017.
"Last year we considered going on honeymoon but it wouldn't have been very enjoyable being in paradise with my injuries, so we decided to postpone it."
He added: "We still have four races remaining before the honeymoon. We've got another two weeks off and then it's hectic with Japan, Australia and Malaysia in October before we finish off in Spain a month later."
Perhaps the couple will discuss the potential pitter-patter of tiny feet when they're striding along St Lucia's gorgeous white beaches. Junior Lavertys are definitely part of the plan.
"It's something we've given a bit of thought to," he said.
"We definitely want children; we don't know exactly when, though."
He added: "I quite like the idea of having bilingual - or even trilingual - children.
"Languages are such a gift. I've learnt Italian now and it was a lot harder to learn than if I'd started when I was three or four years old. I'm pretty much fluent now."
Being multilingual is important to Eugene because he sees himself and 28-year-old Pippa staying in Monaco for the foreseeable future.
"It makes more sense for my career to live there," he said.
"Beyond that we haven't really considered anything, because you just don't know what way things go in life and work.
"I always love home, though, and it's nice to get back and see family and, of course, nieces and nephews - that's precious to us."
Eugene says he wants to stay within the sport when he finally hangs up his leathers - which won't be for a few years yet.
"I'd like to work with the young riders from home after I retire," he said.
"I remember how difficult it was for us to get across to the British Championships when we were kids growing up in Northern Ireland.
"You need the support of your parents to be able to start out at the age I did, 14 or 15 years old.
"There's a lot more expense when you come from Northern Ireland and there's that extra jaunt to England for races." Eugene was back in his home village this week, along with Durham native Pippa, for the Taylorstown Cross-Community Pre-School Playgroup's annual sponsored bicycle ride.
"The pre-school is a committee-run community group that depends highly on fundraising," he explained.
"My three-year-old nephew Joseph McLaughlin attends the school - he's been practising like mad on his little bike - and I'm glad to be home to lend my support. I don't get home often enough.
"I'm a huge advocate of cross-community integration in Northern Ireland and it's great to see pre-schools like Taylorstown continuing forward."
Eugene, a former pupil of Carlane Primary School in Toomebridge and St Olcan's Secondary in Randalstown, says the country he grew up in has made great strides in the right direction over the past few years, and that it's encouraging to see that religion isn't an issue for someone of his nephew's age.
"The kids can go to school and right from the off that's normality," he said.
"Look how much Northern Ireland has progressed. I believe it's the way forward; we are now a peaceful nation, and one that people want to visit."
Yesterday was a fun day with a serious message delivered by a man who spends his life on a powerful, dangerous machine capable of eye-watering speeds.
Eugene won't need reminding that, on an earlier visit home this year, he and Pippa attended the ill-fated North West 200 meeting where young English rider Malachi Mitchell-Thomas was tragically killed two days after homegrown star Ryan Farquhar had sustained life-threatening injuries in another crash.
Safety on bikes - motorised or pedal-powered - remains at the forefront of the short-circuit racer's mind.
"I'm always telling young people about how important it is to wear a helmet," he said.
"You can get injured and break bones here and there - but you only get one head so you've got to look after it."
He added: "I'm a keen cyclist and I've always worn helmets. It's always strange for me when I see people out, not wearing one. I rode a bike without one once when I was a kid and ended up in a hedge, lucky to be alive. It taught me a lesson."
Eugene made a huge career decision recently - to return to the World Superbikes series after two seasons in MotoGP.
The move - one not taken lightly, and the result of considerable and prolonged soul-searching - was fuelled primarily by frustration at not acquiring a genuinely competitive bike to challenge for MotoGP's top honours.
It means he'll now be in direct competition with Larne native Jonathan Rea (29), the current World champion. And he can't wait.
But the rivalry will certainly not be driven by any ill-feeling because the ultra-competitive pair are great friends.
"Everybody, including me, will be wanting to chase down Jonny because, for the last couple of years, he's been incredible," said Eugene. "Him and I grew up racing together.
"We were six or seven years old when we first met and started hanging out. It's funny how things work out.
"We went up through the ranks. I moved to road racing the year before Jonny and later we were team-mates (with the Red Bull Honda youth development programme) in the British Championships.
"We've always got on and we've always had good times.
"We keep in touch. I would text him to congratulate him after races - although, hopefully, it'll be him congratulating me from now on..."
Before that, of course, comes the honeymoon. And Pippa credits her husband as being the "mastermind" behind it.
"He booked it all, arranged everything," she said.
"We're going to a beautiful resort near the beach and really looking forward to spending time together.
"We haven't had any quality time off in a couple of years, just the two of us for a full week away from everything. With our first anniversary falling during the break, it'll be even more special.
"Maybe Eugene will surprise me with a nice romantic dinner that night..."
Perhaps this isn't the right time to reveal that "mastermind" planner Eugene hasn't yet got round to sorting out something for that special evening.
But, just like a year earlier, he'll come through for Pippa. His track record in that department is impeccable.