With six consecutive World Superbike Championships under his belt, Jonathan Rea (33) has made racing history. Of course, fans always knew he'd do well but even his most loyal supporter could not have foreseen the scale of his success. However, there is one woman who, from the moment she set eyes on the young rider, recognised the hallmark of a winner. Since their marriage in 2012, Tatia Rea's belief in her husband's ability to dominate the sport has remained unshakeable.
Down to earth and refreshingly candid, Tatia - who is known as Tarsh - told me about life as the other half of Team Rea's dynamic duo and why she considers Northern Ireland her second home.
"I come from quite a humble background," the 41-year-old says, her Aussie accent instantly recognisable. "Growing up on Phillip Island (just off Australia's southern coast, near Melbourne), my older brother and I spent a lot of time in the outdoors.
"Mum and dad were both teachers but dad's subject was PE so the family was really into sport. My parents loved the simple things in life and took us on camping trips rather than holidaying abroad. So, while it was in many ways a lovely, idyllic kind of childhood, by the time I was 15 I was beginning to develop itchy feet.
"Then my friend and I went to Bali where the differences in culture, sights and sounds were amazing - I loved it. The whole idea of simply 'being away' made me want to travel and see more of the world. My poor parents couldn't understand it."
A chance meeting in a local restaurant provided Tarsh with the ticket to pursue her dream.
"At the time, I was studying creative marketing at Melbourne University but to fund my degree I'd taken a job waitressing in a local Italian restaurant," she recounts. "It just happened to be the same restaurant where riders, there for pre-season testing, came to eat. I got talking to one of the guys who told me he was the PR manager for the Honda Superbike team. I knew nothing about the business. In fact, I didn't even like bikes. But, it did seem like a good way to travel.
"The guy gave me his business card and suggested I write to the manager. I know he was probably fobbing me off, but I was 19 and super-ambitious. I didn't want to stay home and marry the first boyfriend that came along. Of course, lots of people find their soulmate early and have an amazing life. It just wasn't for me. I wanted to travel and see the world and so I sent the manager a fax."
Tarsh laughs at the memory of an era when a fax was considered the height of technological know-how. Still, it worked.
"A short while later, when the team returned for the actual race, a guy came into the restaurant, tapped me on the shoulder and asked if my name was Tarsh," she says. "He told me he'd received the fax and asked why I wanted to work in bikes. I had to admit that I didn't like bikes much but, on the positive side, I was really good with people and always up for a challenge. A few months later, just before my 20th birthday, I got a phone call from Honda, offering me the position of sponsorship co-ordinator and inviting me to move to England. I was over the moon. That was my introduction to the racing community."
Interestingly, while 20-year-old Tarsh's career was taking off, on the other side of the world, in Northern Ireland, 12-year-old Jonathan was just beginning his secondary education at Larne Grammar School. The Rea family were no strangers to racing. Jonathan's father, Johnny, won the 1989 Junior TT race on the Isle of Man while his grandfather, John, sponsored family friend and racing legend Joey Dunlop.
In 2007, 20-year-old Jonathan proved racing was in the blood when he finished runner-up in the British Superbike Championships. In the same year, he met 28-year-old Tarsh Weston, an event that was to change their lives forever.
Was it a case of love at first sight and did the eight-year difference in age bother her?
"When we first met, I was super-busy and, as well as freelancing for an agency in London, I'd agreed to help out at a Honda hospitality event where Jonathan was their young rider," she recalls. "No, I wouldn't describe it as a case of love at first sight! I do remember thinking he was a really lovely guy and he had this endearing quality about him that was so charming. But I'd already been working and travelling for eight years so I'd a lot of experience behind me and to be honest, at the time, I did think he was too young for me."
The couple travelled along parallel paths but every now and then fate conspired to throw them together.
"We weren't 'together' as such but we seemed to wind up in the same country at the same event a lot of the time," Tarsh says. "So we developed a really strong friendship. Having had more experience I tried to help him find his way around, do little things like booking cars. Gradually, yes, I did start to feel an attraction for him."
Age wasn't the only obstacle that got in the way of a deeper relationship, however.
"I'd always maintained a very professional stance with the riders and, although we could be best mates, romance was off the menu," she explains.
"I simply didn't want to cross the line. But my attraction to Jonathan was very strong and, no matter what my head said, my heart won out. Over time, we'd progressed to a sort of on/off type of relationship but by 2009 I knew it couldn't go on. So I told him I needed something secure and more stable. I was in France at the time and he rang me constantly. Eventually, he convinced me he was serious and ready to commit. It was wonderful to know we both felt the same and were ready to move forward."
The status of the couple's relationship had long been a topic of speculation but in 2009, Tarsh decided to go public and sealed it with a kiss.
"In Misano, Jonathan had just gone out and won his first World Superbike race, which was brilliant," she smiles. "I was over the moon for him. At the time, I was working for a different team but I remember going up to the 'parc ferme' (a secure area designated solely to riders, teams and authorised personnel) and giving him a kiss in front of everyone. That certainly made our relationship official."
Three years later, on July 7, 2012, the couple, surrounded by family and friends, married in the Lake District. Why did they chose this particular spot to tie the knot?
"We'd visited the Lake District many times and had fallen in love with the place," Tarsh says. "Another reason we chose the Lakes was the fact it was easily accessible from the Isle of Man and also from Northern Ireland. As you can imagine, we had people from all over the world attending. My family and friends from Australia, Jonathan's management in the US, people from all over Europe. So we needed to ensure we made it worth the effort for our guests.
"The church ceremony took place in the village of Crosthwaite and the rest of the celebrations were held in a boutique home owned by the producers of the TV show Shameless. I chose a beautiful Pronovias dress and borrowed my mother's veil that she'd worn 40 years earlier. It was a beautiful, emotional day."
Like all those who work in motorsport, Tarsh was well aware of the dangers but when the rider hurtling around the track at over 200mph happens to be your husband, the risks become very real. How does she cope with the stress?
"Yes, I'd always known it was a dangerous sport and had witnessed some really bad accidents," she says. "But when it's someone you love, it takes anxiety to a whole new level. Initially when Jonathan was racing, I'd be in a terrible state. I'd be literally sick with worry. I'm not a church person by any means but I am spiritual and so I'd say a prayer for his protection and safe return.
"Eventually a friend, one of the mechanics, took me aside and said, 'Tarsh, you have to trust that he knows what he's doing. This is his livelihood, it's his job, you have to let it go'. After that, I was determined to step back a little. I had to accept that this is Jonathan's choice and he does know what he's doing. If I get caught up in the what ifs, I won't be able to cope and that would be no good for any of us, especially the children. So, yes, I try to go with the flow and leave it to him.”
Exotic destinations, after-parties, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, the racing community appears to enjoy a glamorous lifestyle. Does the image match the reality?
“Of course, there are some lovely events, such as award ceremonies and celebration parties where everyone gets dressed up to have fun and let their hair down,” Tarsh says. “However, most of the time, life is very ordinary and routine. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, where you live or what you do for a living, everyone has problems. In 2013 we were living on the Isle of Man when we had our first son, Jake. His brother, Tyler, arrived a couple of years later. That was a difficult time as I struggled to cope with a newborn suffering from ‘silent reflux’ and postnatal depression. With no family around, those early days of parenthood were a challenge to say the least.
“But Jonathan and I have always worked as a team and I think it’s this attitude that gets us through. He didn’t want to leave us behind so we packed everything into a tour bus and travelled with him. It was great to be together as a family but believe me, living on a tour bus, albeit a nice tour bus, in the concrete car park of a race paddock for half the year, is very far from glamorous!”
Like many mums, Tarsh decided to put her career on hold to raise the children.
“Jonathan and I have had our individual successes but when we got engaged, I decided to put my career on the back burner and concentrate on him,” she reveals. “Then when we got married and the children arrived, my role as mum became the most important. As the kids got older, they needed a sense of structure and routine so while Jonathan was going out and being successful, I was happy to stay at home, look after the children and keep things going. It’s important to us both that our sons feel secure and grounded.
“I give myself a pat on the back for achieving this and I’m really lucky that Jonathan acknowledges and appreciates my contribution. Since moving to Northern Ireland, we have had the added blessing of being close to Jonathan’s family who are a great support.”
How does Co Antrim compare with the sunny land of Oz?
“You know, people often ask me that,” Tarsh laughs. “Northern Ireland may be small but believe me, I’ve seen a lot of the world and this country has a lot to offer. When we came to Northern Ireland, I was amazed by how at home I felt. Then I realised that a lot of my ancestors are from this part of the world. At the moment, I’m really into tracing my origins and keeping in touch with the ‘earthy’ side of my character. There is so much tradition here that resonates with me spiritually. I love it.”
Moving to Northern Ireland has also offered an opportunity to re-connect with her creative side — and Tarsh reveals that she has enjoyed working towards a career in interior design.
She has already made her mark on the family’s gorgeous five-bedroomed property situated just a stone’s throw from the village of Dunadry.
“I’ve turned to my Aussie roots to create my ideal home,” she says. “I’m very into nature so I want to have that sense of bringing the outdoors inside. Having huge floor to ceiling windows helps, as does having lots and lots of plants.
“We wanted our home to be a reflection of us as individuals and as a family and have included Jonathan’s collection of motorbike helmets, given to him by other riders, as part of our kitchen decor. They sit on top of the cupboards and look absolutely amazing.
“Now that Jake is seven and Tyler five I feel it’s time for me to get back out there and do something that I really enjoy. So I’ve recently started working part-time for a local interior designer and loving every minute of it. Jonathan is really supportive and I’m so excited to see how things turn out.”
Like the rest of the world, the Reas have not escaped the impact of Covid-19 restrictions.
“There’s no doubt 2020 has been a terrible year,” Tarsh acknowledges. “My mum has Alzheimer’s disease and I worry about her, especially as she’s on the other side of the world. We used to be able to go over to visit but now that’s impossible. I just have to accept that everyone is affected and we all have to make sacrifices and so I try to keep a positive attitude and learn something from it all.”
What has she learned?
“Life has changed so much, it feels like society is in shock,” she says. “I think we need to allow ourselves space to grieve a little for what we’ve lost. Perhaps it’s an opportunity to stop and reflect. I mean, a year ago the world was a crazy, hectic place. We rushed around everywhere, buying everything whether we needed it or not.
“Now, priorities have changed and we have the chance to go back to our roots, invest more in ourselves. At the end of the day, we aren’t in control of this virus. We just have to ride it out, go with the flow. I think Covid-19 has taught me to take stock and be grateful for the small things. Last year, I would have thought nothing of going out for a coffee. Now, I pause and think about what a lovely treat it is.”
Finally as the interview winds down, I ask Tarsh what she thinks is in store for Team Rea. Can Jonathan add a seventh victory to his list?
“You know what, Jonathan works incredibly hard and is a very determined guy,” she says. “He’s also super-competitive and has a great bunch of people around him. So when he is focused and in that zone, I truly believe he is unbeatable. So yes, I do believe he can bring home the seventh world championship title and probably the eighth as well.”
What does the future hold for Tarsh?
“It’s early days but I’m up for the challenges,” she determines. “I’m excited by the opportunities ahead and looking forward to the next stage in my life. Watch this space.”
She’s achieved her teenage dream to travel the world, enjoyed a successful career, married her soulmate and has two gorgeous sons. Whatever the future holds for Tarsh Rea, she’s already a winner.