Jonathan Rea 'humbled' by homecoming fit for a hero
Five-time World Superbike champion Jonathan Rea was "super humbled" by the hero's welcome he received as he arrived back in Northern Ireland last night following his record win.
Family, friends and fans descended on Belfast International Airport to congratulate the Kawasaki rider after he unexpectedly clinched the sport's crown on Sunday by winning the final race at Magny-Cours in France.
His wife Tatia, sons Jake and Tyler and mum Claire were among the hundreds who gathered to greet the most decorated rider in World Superbike history.
Sunday's win was a staggering achievement by the 32-year-old from Templepatrick who, since he signed for Kawasaki, has won every Championship - 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and now 2019 - with two rounds still remaining this year in Argentina and Qatar.
But the man himself admits that it still hasn't sunk in.
"While this reception puts it in perspective that it's a big deal, when you're in a competitive environment you're almost in a bubble and don't realise what's going on outside," he said.
"Your focus is always on the next race or season, but it's mad that people take time out of their busy lives to come and see me.
"These are the people who have your back, send you messages on social media and keep your head up, win or lose, so it means a lot. In difficult times sport gives people something to hang on to so I'm really glad to be that model in motorcycling and hopefully can inspire the next generation."
For now Rea's focus is on a belated birthday party for eldest son Jake, who just turned six.
"I missed Jake's birthday last Friday so we are having a football-themed party on Saturday with friends and family. After that I'm on a plane to Argentina for the next race."
Proud wife Tatia admitted doing her online food shop as a distraction from Sunday's race.
"I'm not very good at watching the races as I feel it's too nerve-racking, so it took a while to process what had happened," she said.
"I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, but I did both because it was such a miracle.
"Jonathan has worked so hard to come from behind but he kept chipping away.
"At the middle of the season I told him things would turn around and to keep believing that he would claw his way back."
Chloe Rea (22), a student nurse, also paid tribute to her "heroic big brother".
"We're so proud and a bit gobsmacked, really, by his incredible achievement," she said.
"Every year he just astounds us more and more. He's just a really good role model to look up to and we couldn't ask for better." Another sporting great, Lady Mary Peters, said she was "really proud" to know Jonathan.
"I just love what he does and to be world champion once is great, but for the fifth time, with two races to go, is magnificent," the Olympic gold medallist added.