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'I miss Doctor John dearly. The Air Ambulance was his vision and that's why I will be fundraising for it at the North West'

Speed queen Maria Costello on losing popular medic, becoming a poster girl for women in sport despite mum's worries, and her joy at getting MBE


Driving seat: Maria Costello is ready to rock at the North West 200

Driving seat: Maria Costello is ready to rock at the North West 200

Royal seal: Maria outside Buckingham Palace with her MBE

Royal seal: Maria outside Buckingham Palace with her MBE

Helping hand: Maria is treated by Dr John Hinds after crashing at the North West in 2014

Helping hand: Maria is treated by Dr John Hinds after crashing at the North West in 2014

Maria with John McGuinness and Dean Harrison in 2016

Maria with John McGuinness and Dean Harrison in 2016

Driving seat: Maria Costello is ready to rock at the North West 200

You might think suffering serious injuries being knocked off a motorcycle in a road accident, aged just 17, would put you off two wheels for life. Quite the opposite in Maria Costello's case. She used the compensation cash to buy a racer.

Twenty-seven years and 24 broken bones in racing accidents since that mishap on her way to her studies at a veterinary college later, this coming week will see Maria hurtle between the North West hedges at speeds of over 100mph on her 650cc Kawasaki Supertwin pride and joy.

And at 44, she shows no signs of slowing down. Again, quite the opposite.

"I'm probably fitter now than I've ever been in my racing career. Since turning 40, I have been working harder on my strength and fitness to prolong my career. I discovered cross-fit. I have regular physio," Maria relates.

"Motorcycle racing is a dangerous sport," she accepts, too, adding: "I've broken about 24 bones in my body - but it doesn't put me off. There's the odd time when you're in terrible pain and you start to question it, but pretty quickly you're thinking, 'Where's my bike? I want to go again'.

"I've had physiotherapists and consultants tell me I should think about doing something else but I get such a lot out of the sport that it's worth it. I want to carry on racing for a while longer."

One of the best known names and faces at the North West over the past decade or so, Maria is no token female.

She is in the record books as the fastest woman to lap the North West circuit (108.774mph in 2016) and TT course (119.945mph in 2010) and has stood on the Isle of Man podium, alongside her friend and racing legend John McGuinness after a third place in the Classic TT, no mean feat.

She has also been a stunt double in a number of films for Reese Witherspoon, Christina Ricci and Tamzin Outhwaite.

Having followed her career from her early days starting out here, it has been interesting to note a sea change of north coast proportions in the perception of her.

From initially sparking media interest as a novelty item, a woman who raced motorcycles, Maria is now regarded by press, fellow riders and fans alike as a competitor in her own right who just happens to be female.

And she has the medal to show for it, being awarded an MBE in 2009 for services to motorcycle sport. As he conferred the Royal seal of approval at the Buckingham Palace ceremony, Prince Charles asked: "Did you come on a motorbike?" And, of course, she had.

She races the same bikes as the blokes in the same races, the sense of equality even extending to the constant financial struggle by riders outside of the big factory-funded teams to keep their show on the road.

Maria will arrive in Portstewart this week as a one-woman team, aided by a solitary mechanic, and hoping to recruit some voluntary help from other better equipped teams in the paddock. Cookstown team boss John Burrows and his spanner man, Mark Arnott, are always particularly helpful, she acknowledges. And, quite coincidentally, she discovered Cookstown is where her maternal grandmother came from.

After all she has achieved, Maria, who has lived all her life in the Northampton village of Spratton, is now understandably portrayed as a beacon and champion for women in all sports, but especially the male-dominated former closed shop of motorcycle racing.

That is not what she set out to become. "I just wanted to ride bikes and win races," she insists.

But along the way she grew into her flagbearer status, founding her widely followed Woman On A Motorcycle Facebook group and organising women-only track days to try to encourage more to follow in her tyre tracks.

To that end, Maria will break off her North West preparations on Wednesday to speak at a breakfast event at the Riverside Theatre in Coleraine, entitled Breaking Boundaries On and Off The Track.

"It's one of a million things Mervyn Whyte, the North West organiser, has me doing," she laughs.

"Essentially I will be talking about my career and the ups and downs, quite literally. Everyone is welcome but the aim again is to inspire women into sport, any sport.

"From my own perspective, I've seen more come in to motorcycle sport and they are competitive and proving that we can compete on equal terms. But I'd like to see even more.

"Racing is hard to get into for anybody. It's maybe harder for parents to put their young daughter into motorcycling, they might not see it as a career or a hobby even, so there's fewer girls coming onto two wheels at an early age. There are more, definitely there's more, so it's changing.

"It's hard for everybody to get sponsorship, too. I can only say that hard work and success pays off no matter what your gender is. I'd like it to get to the point where there are so many women on the grid that it's not any different and it is more equal in all of those aspects. We're a long way off from that. There are a lot more women competing in all disciplines but we're still a minority.

"So come along to the Riverside on Wednesday and have brekkie with me. It's just £5 all-in and all proceeds go to a cause close to my heart, the Air Ambulance."

Which brings us to the downside of a sport her mother Eileen never wanted her daughter to become involved in.

An iconic image widely published around the time of the death of popular racing doctor, John Hinds, in an accident while on medical duties at the Skerries 100 in 2015, is of Doctor John, as he was universally known, attending to Maria after a crash at the North West.

"I miss Doctor John dearly, everyone in the paddock does," she says sadly. "I remember that picture so well. I'm sitting in a deckchair after he'd treated me for a leg injury, not the first time he'd patched me up. I'd broken a bone and couldn't stand but was trying to convince him I could go back out and race. He was having none of it. They do such a fantastic job, the sight of those fluorescent orange helmets is so reassuring and the Air Ambulance is another advance for the sport here. Doctor John campaigned for so long to have the service introduced so I am proud to assist in any way."

Like any rider you talk to, Maria sees the elephant in the paddock, the clear and present danger of high-speed road racing they seldom discuss, believing the buzz and thrill and love of the sport far outweighs the risks.

"That's why I do it," Maria insists. "I'm a human being, I have feelings and I'm not blind to what can happen. It might be puzzling to people why we do it, knowing all that, and I don't have an easy answer, other than we don't want to see anyone hurt. We can only put our trust in making our machines and the circuits as safe as they can possibly be."

How ironic that it all began for Maria with that teenage spill.

"At 17, I arrived at veterinary nursing college on crutches, as I'd been knocked off my motorbike and had a broken pelvis, elbow and ribs," Maria remembers.

"I'd only bought the bike to get to and from college. We'd never had bikes in our family and it started off as a practicality, but I absolutely fell in love with it - the speed, the freedom, the individuality.

"I just wanted everything to be about motorcycling and racing was a natural extension. I bought a racing bike out of the accident compensation and discovered my competitive side too - I was never a competitive person before I started riding - and it went from there.

"There isn't a word in the dictionary that can sum up what motorcycling gives to me, I feel so lucky that I found my sport."

Maria faced opposition from mum Eileen, though. "My mum was steadfastly against it," Maria admits. "Looking back now, it's terrible what I must have put her through as I really look up to my mum.

"But she's had over 20 years of it now so I'd say she's kind of come round to it. It has been a difficult journey for her as a mum having her daughter do an unusual sport - I wouldn't have me as a daughter. I think the MBE helped the family understand that I hadn't been wasting my time. They didn't think it could be a career. I guess when Royalty recognised it they perhaps thought it was okay and I'd not been wasting my time and we all had an amazing day at the Palace."

Starting out on English short circuits, Maria's road racing breakthrough, the one that put her on the radar as a serious contender, came as part of an all-female team at the Manx Grand Prix.

"I dreaded telling my mum because the first thing she said when I took up racing was, 'You'll never go to the Isle of Man place, will you?'

"But three laps in at the Isle of Man and I knew it was meant for me. There's a special feeling you get from racing on a real road but more than that it's the people, I've never met more welcoming people. I did fall in love with it, despite the injuries, and I find it suits me and I enjoy it more than short circuits.

"It was more affordable and I had more opportunities in road racing."

And how did the macho male riders take to the arrival on their territory of the newcomer they now call Elvis?

"You'd best ask them. I just got on with my racing," Maria replies. "If anyone ever doubted me, male or female, it just fuelled my fire. Let's be honest, society has shaped us and guys don't like to get beaten by women but it's changing and they've had to learn to get over it.

"To be fair, they've been great with me, accepting me for what I am. I've nothing to prove to anyone in the paddock.

"The Irish riders especially have been very friendly and welcoming. I never knew why I tended to gravitate towards the Irish riders initially. I remember sharing a garage with Joey Dunlop on the Isle of Man and was in awe of him.

"Then I discovered my grandmother originally came from Cookstown so I guess road racing was in my DNA."

Despite her high profile, Maria still has to work hard, off the track, to fund her racing. She gave up veterinary nursing, for which she is qualified, years ago and has since worked in journalism and PR.

These days, her income stems from her track days, with a future one planned for Northern Ireland, motivational speaking and from her sponsorship deal with spark plug makers NGK.

"I'll never make enough to be able to compete financially and machinery-wise with the big teams," she admits. "Top 10 is about the best I could wish for at the North West. But I do love the place. It's all about the people, the craic and, of course, the racing. It is a unique event and long may the love affair continue.

"Motorbikes have contributed to many a broken bone, but they've never broken my heart..."

Belfast Telegraph