Belfast Telegraph

Ryan Farquhar’s extra-special festive celebration after the NW200 crash that nearly killed him

Road racing legend Ryan Farquhar on the horror North West 200 crash that nearly killed him, on the slow, painful recovery... and why his young children will have a big say as to whether he gets back on a bike

By Claire McNeilly

Ryan Farquhar didn't think he'd see this Christmas. You don't look too far ahead when you're lying in a hospital bed with a lacerated liver, punctured lung, severe internal bleeding and multiple broken bones.

It was one day at a time back then and, in many ways, it still is.

The only road this record-breaking racer is on now is a painfully slow one towards recovery - and there have been many bumps since that horrific high-speed crash at the North West 200 in May.

But this will be an extra-special weekend in the Farquhar family home.

No matter what's under the tree, it won't match the priceless gift daughters Keeley (12) and eight-year-old Mya have already received.

Daddy will be there for them. He's three stone heavier than when he was in hospital and doesn't move around as quickly as he used to, but he's still unmistakably Daddy.

And he'd love his present to be a fit-again and fully functioning body, one capable of climbing back onto a powerful motorbike.

He'd love to return to the days when he wasn't tired, or in pain all the time. But those days are still a long way off.

In the meantime, this Christmas Day will feel more like a thanksgiving.

What happened on May 12 was bad, but the 40-year-old is well aware that it could have been a lot worse.

"Christmas will be even more special to us this year because of what we've been through," said Ryan, sitting alongside Karen, his wife of 12 years, in the front room of the Co Tyrone family bungalow.

"There was a point when it looked as if I wouldn't see this Christmas. Karen's admitted that she didn't know if I'd make it or not," he said.

Spectators feared the worst when the veteran of over 200 road race victories crashed his Kawasaki close to the spot where, two days earlier, 20-year-old rising English star Malachi Mitchell-Thomas had been tragically killed.

Farquhar was airlifted by helicopter to Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital for emergency treatment on a catalogue of injuries which included six fractured ribs and broken feet, but by far the most serious were the internal bleeding and the lacerated liver which would ultimately require four operations.

The five-times North West 200 winner thought he was over the worst when he was allowed home after nearly three weeks, but a frightening relapse landed him back in hospital. Once again, his loved ones feared the worst.

Ryan was hospitalised for 29 days in total and, although the life-threatening phase is now behind the Dungannon man, he's still a long way off a full recovery - and coming to terms with the realisation that his road racing days are almost certainly over.

"My whole life I've always been active, out training and physically fit, but it was just like somebody had flicked a switch and I wasn't fit to do all those things," he said.

"It's hitting home now that I'm not going to be able to do the things that I used to do. I'm tired all the time. I can't really do much physically. It's doubtful if I'll ever be able to race again."

Unflinchingly supportive of her husband, Karen (36), who has shared every dark moment with Ryan since that fateful Thursday night Supertwins race at the Triangle circuit, nevertheless calls it like it is.

"If it wasn't for me Ryan couldn't have been at home," she said.

"I had to take him to the toilet. He couldn't hold a glass of water up to his mouth. He couldn't put his socks on. I had to wash him.

"His surgical bag constantly needed emptied because of all the gunk coming out of his system. I would've done anything to have helped him, but it was tough because he was fit for nothing. He was just like a child..."

Karen added that the man she married in the Isle of Man on Valentine's Day 2004 would not be alive today had it not been for the availability of a helicopter on the evening of the crash.

"Ryan would have died," she said.

"He was fortunate in that he made it to hospital just as the internal bleeding started.

"The medics said he was in the right place at the right time, because the bleeding was so severe he'd never have made it if he'd been in an ambulance on the road."

Ryan initially showed encouraging progress and, within a few days, was moved out of intensive care. But then things took a sudden turn for the worse.

"He started to go downhill badly," recalled Karen.

"His temperature was through the roof, his blood pressure was extremely low and he was rushed back into intensive care, then onto theatre to have over a third of his liver removed."

The wild fluctuations in his condition took a heavy toll on Ryan who, albeit in a wheelchair, had appeared healthy and upbeat while posing for pictures at a tribute lap of the North West 200 for the late Malachi Mitchell-Thomas in June. Some 24 hours later, however, he returned to hospital.

"I was really ill," he conceded.

"When I got home and started eating normally I thought I'd soon be up on my feet again, but that didn't happen.

"If anything, from the day I got out of hospital I was getting worse. The whole time I was out, I never felt I was improving.

"I had this drain in, and it turned out it was poisoning me, so I had to have another big operation. That took a lot out of me.

"They basically had to lift my insides out, clean everything out, and then put me back together again.

"I think my ribs were sorer after that than when I broke them..."

Ryan - whose team's name, KMR Racing, comprises his daughters' initials - is currently facing up to the prospect of yet another operation after X-rays showed bone fragments "floating about" in his ankle. "Some days I can hardly walk on it and it's really, really sore," said the three-time TT winner.

The odds are firmly stacked against a return to road racing, and it's deeply frustrating for Ryan that, this time, the future will be dictated by the state of his body and not his mind.

Four years ago he retired from the sport after his uncle Trevor Ferguson was killed during a race in the Isle of Man, but it wasn't long before the lure of the bike and the adrenalin rushes that accompany it proved to be overwhelming.

Road racers don't like to be told when to stop; they tell you.

And, despite all the pain, restricted movement, discomfort, fatigue, nightmares about the crash - and even the possibility of developing arthritis in his neck - Ryan, whose record haul of 201 Irish national wins made him a road racing legend, still hasn't fully given up on his dream.

"I'm just hoping that I can get myself fit enough that I will be able to do it again, but the doctors have told me I'll have no stamina for a couple of years," he said.

"By that time I don't even know how fit I'll be. I'll be nearly 43 years old, and to be away from the sport for that length of time at my age... I just don't know what's in the future."

Whatever's up ahead will be influenced by his family.

"Keeley, for one, wouldn't want me going back," he admitted.

"When I do make a final decision, everything will come into it - how I feel, what way they feel... what the options are at the time."

Karen, meanwhile, says she will support whatever decision her husband makes - although she suspects it has already been made for him.

"With what Ryan's been through I can see that he's not the same, but if he did start to make a massive recovery and said he was going to give it another go... it's not what I would want to hear but I'd just have to go with the flow," Karen said.

Of course, Karen's attitude comes from a profound understanding of why people like Ryan still want to continue with something that has nearly killed them.

"When I was in hospital there were people lying in beds in the ward beside me, some in a much worse condition than me, and none of them had raced a motorbike," said Ryan.

"I believe there's a certain day that everybody's going to die and you're not going to go past it whether you race a motorbike or not."

He added: "I think smokers are mad doing what they do but they enjoy it, they know the risks.

"I wouldn't tell anybody not to smoke, but I think they're mad doing it.

"It's a bit like that with racing; people think we're mad.

"It's something we enjoy and you'd be a fool to say it's not dangerous. That's probably why we get the buzz out of what we do - because of the danger. But if you start worrying about that, you wouldn't go out on the road."

It has left him with a broken body more than once over the last 12 years, but think twice before denigrating the sport Ryan still loves.

"It makes my blood boil when I hear people who have nothing to do with the sport, or know nothing about it, slagging road racing off," he said.

"It's none of their business."

It will, however, remain Ryan's business.

Even if he has to give up competing, he intends to carry on running the team with Karen, who gave up her job in an estate agents seven years ago to work alongside him.

"No matter what I do it's going to be hard," he said.

"So much has been invested into the racing side of things; we have so much equipment and all the tools.

"When I quit for the first time four years ago I still had to make a living. I had other guys riding for me.

"I had a load of issues that year with bikes being crashed and the work load was massive. I didn't enjoy it one bit. I came to a crossroads and the easiest thing to do then was to hand-pick a few races and get back on the bike."

Whatever happens from now on, whatever pain he's in, Ryan is just relieved that he can sit round the dinner table with Karen, Keeley and Mya this Christmas.

"What happened to young Malachi at the North West could have happened to me... I am well aware of that," he said.

"With the injuries that I had, and how fast I went down, I'm very lucky to be alive."

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