Motorcycle racing pals Ryan Farquhar and Jamie Hamilton on the long road back from despair
For the early part of his road racing career Jamie Hamilton had Ryan Farquhar as his teacher. Benefitting from the huge experience of a rider who has won more Irish road races than even the late, great Joey Dunlop, the Ballyclare youngster won races and set lap records on Farquhar's KMR Kawasakis.
After two successful seasons the pair went their separate ways but they remained friends and raced against each other most weekends until disaster struck in June 2015.
On the opening lap of the Isle of Man Senior TT, Hamilton lost control of his Burrows Engineering Suzuki superbike at 170mph and crashed into a line of trees.
Less than a year later Farquhar suffered the same cruel fate when he slid off his Kawasaki during the Supertwins race at the 2016 North West 200. The former master and pupil, who had enjoyed such success together on track, have fought their way back from terrible injuries that almost cost them their lives.
Dungannon rider Farquhar remembers every split second of the crash that brought his road racing career to an end.
"From you feel the front wheel sliding away until you hit the road seems like 30 seconds but it's only a split second," the 40-year-old recalls. "But I remember having time to think 'This is going to hurt'.
"I don't remember being hit by another bike but I do remember hitting the bales and tumbling and tossing through the air. I was badly winded but at that stage I didn't realise how badly I was hurt."
The former TT winner had broken six ribs and smashed two bones in one foot and three in the other. More seriously, his lung had been punctured and his liver lacerated by his broken ribs.
Only the speed with which he was transported to a Belfast hospital in a police helicopter saved his life.
Doctors in the Royal Victoria's emergency unit stemmed the internal bleeding and eventually removed the damaged section of his injured liver.
Hamilton had also been ferried to hospital by helicopter after his horrific smash during the opening lap of the Senior TT almost a year earlier.
The brain injury he suffered in the 170mph impact with a row of trees ensured he remembers nothing of the crash.
"I remember waking up in hospital and tried to move all the parts of my body but I couldn't move my arm or leg," the young racer explains.
"I looked up and saw my mum at the end of the bed. That was three weeks to the day since my crash."
Hamilton's mother Helen was to continue her unbroken bedside vigil for over two months.
"I was in hospital for nine and a half weeks and my mum never left," her son says. "She came in at 9.30am and wouldn't leave until 10pm at night. At the very start she had to do everything for me, I couldn't even eat my own dinner."
The 25-year-old suffered appalling injuries to his right arm and leg. "Both my tibia and fibula were broken," he says. "My fibula will never join again and I had 63cm smashed out of my tibia but that has grown back again now. I also broke two ribs and my humerus bone in my upper arm as well."
The leg injury was so severe that Jamie is still wearing a cage over a year and half after the accident. So far he has endured nine operations and faced numerous setbacks as doctors try to piece his shattered limbs back together again. "There were two plates and a bone graft put in my arm," he explains.
"The bone graft was from someone who had died. They crush the bone up to put it in. Since then I have had another graft out of my hip. I have no feeling in my fingers because of nerve damage in my arm."
Hamilton's right foot remains horribly contorted and he says the doctors have told him the foot and ankle will have to be fused together at some point in the future. In spite of his physical injuries, it is Jamie's continued memory loss that is proving the most frustrating.
"At the start I could remember nothing at all," he relates. "I was calling my mum my dog's name! It has come round slowly but surely and I have found that the more I come back to normality the better it gets. But if I get very stressed or am in a lot of pain for a few days my memory is terrible. It's annoying because people don't see it. It's not like the cage on my leg. People see that but they can't see that I have a head injury or that I am struggling with my memory.
"On the good days I remember nearly everything but then if I've a bad day people think I am lying when I say I can't remember something."
Both Ryan and Jamie have suffered a great deal on their way to recovery but they both try to play it down with black humour.
Farquhar teases Jamie that it will be useful to him to pretend sometimes that he can't remember and Hamilton retorts that Farquhar's snooker skills are only getting better because he has so much time to practice now.
But the restrictions the injuries have imposed on their day to day lives are beginning to grate.
"I have been in theatre four times and they are going to do something with my ankle so by the time they have me sorted it will be five operations," Farquhar says.
"The pain over the last year has been unreal. I struggle to sleep and I have absolutely no stamina. It has just taken so much out of me."
The psychological impact of life changing injuries on two men who have spent their lives competing and winning at the highest level in their chosen sport has also been traumatic.
"Definitely there have been times when I have been really down." Farquhar admits. "Initially when I got out of hospital I was so dependent on my wife Karen to do everything for me. I wasn't able to walk to the bathroom or turn round in bed. There are times when, if it hadn't been for my two girls, Keeley and Mya, I was so low and in such bad form that I almost wished I had died."
At their lowest ebb both Hamilton and Farquhar say they began to realise how fortunate they were to have escaped with their lives. With their families and friends they are looking more optimistically to the future.
"It's whenever things like this happen that you realise who your true friends are," Jamie says.
"Who the people are who don't just care about you because you are a motorbike racer and get to stand beside you when you are winning but really care about you. When I started to get a bit stronger there were things that I started to look forward to and I thought to myself 'I am so lucky to be here'. Before, everything revolved around motorbikes.
"When I got up in the morning I was only thinking about what I had to do to win a race. I appreciate what I have a lot more now. I appreciate the good times, laughing and going out and having a bit of fun."
Ryan and Jamie agree the fate of Malachi Mitchell-Thomas had a profound effect on both of them. The fatal crash of the charismatic 21-year-old English newcomer at the same spot on the North West 200 course where Farquhar had fallen in a race just two days earlier sent shock waves through a sport that is only too familiar with danger and death.
"Malachi crashed and he didn't make it," Ryan says quietly. "He would love to be in my situation. I just kept telling myself that over and over again."
Jamie was even closer to Malachi as his replacement in the Burrows Engineering race squad after his TT crash. He tried, in spite of his injuries, to offer the young newcomer the benefit of his circuit knowledge when he came to Ireland.
"I had problems with my memory but we were going out driving round race tracks and I was trying to tell Malachi what I remembered," the 25-year-old explains.
"I thought at the start that I wouldn't be able to tell him anything but then when we got to the track things started coming back."
Offering his guidance to the young newcomer had lifted Hamilton's spirits, making Malachi's death especially traumatic for the Co Antrim rider.
"After Malachi was killed and I went to a race I felt there was no reason to be there," he says.
"I wasn't fit to push a motorbike to the start line, I wasn't fit to put tyre warmers on. When I was racing I always talked about hangers on, someone who just came and stood around the awning to be seen and that's exactly how I felt, like I was only there to get some glory. I didn't like that, I hated it."
In spite of all that has happened in the last two years, Jamie and Ryan's plans for the future still involve motorbikes.
"I'm going to be hands on and actually getting stuck in," Jamie says.
"I won't be standing around getting my picture taken. If I do go to races I want to muck in and get my hands dirty."
Will he consider racing again himself? "I haven't ruled anything out," he smiles.
Farquhar takes comfort from being able to reflect on his success in a way that other riders who have lost their lives in this most unforgiving of sports have not been able to do.
"I feel great riders like Robert and Joey Dunlop have been robbed in a way because they never got to sit down and look back and say they had done this or that in their careers and it had been great.
"They were always racing and while you are racing you are always thinking of the next race. You can never rest on your laurels," he says.
"Once you get hurt and you think 'this isn't going to happen for me any more', you can look back and appreciate what you have achieved."