Four-time World Superbike champion Jonathan Rea has received an honorary degree for his outstanding contribution to sport.
The Co Antrim racer received the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters (DLitt) from Ulster University at its winter graduation ceremony.
Of the occasion at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast, he said: “It’s difficult to stand in a room full of highly educated people and receive an award like that when I haven’t gone to university.
“But I have served my time. My sacrifice and dedication went to motorcycling and I’m very proud to be a Doctor of Letters because of that.
“It’s a lifelong sacrifice. Since I was six-years-old I’ve travelled the length and breadth of the UK racing. The injuries I’ve faced, the ups and downs, to actually win a world championship on top of all that is massive.
“It’s nice that my family can see there was an endgame after all their sacrifice in the beginning.
“It’s a very proud day for the whole family. Especially my two little boys (Jake and Tyler), they realise that it’s not normal to be at an event like this. They know the various race tracks inside out but this is different. I hope I can be a good role model for them.”
The 31-year-old said it was the first time he had ever attended a graduation, adding: “I never imagined the first one would be my own.”
Asked about his graduate attire for the ceremony, he said: “Of course I feel a lot more comfortable in leathers and a helmet but it’s really nice to be acknowledged outside the sport. It’s something that’s happening more and more recently.”
The honorary degree follows the 2017 award of an MBE on the New Year’s Honours list. Rea also finished runner up in the 2017 BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
“These others awards and occasions are new to me. It’s good that I have the support at home and actually moving back here is great timing.”
Underneath his gown he was wearing a suit made by Isle of Man-based tailor The Noble Suitor. It was embroidered inside to read: ‘Made exclusively for Dr Jonathan Rea MBE’.
The former Ballynure Primary School and Larne Grammar pupil said: “I’ve been back a few times to assemblies and to talk to the kids.
“From an academic side [Larne Grammar School] was great, I had great relationships with a lot of the teachers and they were able to let me flourish at my studies.
“My grades at GCSE were A*s, As and Bs, but unfortunately I didn’t further that. I went travelling the world racing bikes.
“After I left school I went to technical college and got an HNC in manufacturing engineering and then went on to work as an engineer.
“It was hard to hold down a job as I was taking too much time off work to go racing.
“I had what was nearly a career-ending injury. That was a dark time in my life because I didn’t know what was coming, I’d no great qualifications behind me, I was working a minimum wage job. I wasn’t in a great state of mind.
“I threw myself at bikes for a few years and then it worked out, my big break came.”
He added: “Northern Ireland fans are very important to me. The travelling support has been immense these last few years. It just keeps getting bigger and bigger.
“On my sighting laps and slow down laps I can see the Northern Ireland fans. I always try to throw out a leg to acknowledge I’ve seen them.”
Rea is often claimed by both Larne and Ballyclare and sometimes referred to as a son of Ballymena. Asked where he came from, he said: “I’m a country boy. I grew up in Kilwaughter, then moved to Ballyboley. We were part of Larne Council with a Ballymena area code and a Ballyclare postcode. I’m happy to be claimed by whoever.”