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FIRST PERSON: Father-son triathlon duo inspires many

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (BP)–Meet father-and-son marathon competitors Dick and Rick Hoyt.

Dick (60) and Rick (42) also participate as a team in triathlons — grueling combinations of 26.2-mile runs, 112-mile bicycling, and 2.4-mile swims — a remarkable feat considering Rick’s inability to walk or talk. At birth, a coiled umbilical cord had wrapped around his neck, cutting off oxygen to his brain and leaving Rick a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy.

When Rick was eight months old the doctors informed the Hoyts that he’d be a vegetable all his life and that they should just put him away. But Dick and Judy Hoyt had connected with their wounded infant. During a recent phone interview, Dick told me that an extraordinary bond instantly formed between father and son.

As years passed, and regardless of the daunting task of dealing not only with Rick’s physical limitations, but the community’s often-cruel ignorance, Dick and Judy took on a battle with the Massachusetts education system. Because Rick couldn’t speak, school officials mistakenly thought he couldn’t comprehend. Dick set out to prove them wrong. Mom and dad began teaching young Rick the alphabet. That accomplished, Dick then sought help from a group of Tufts University engineers.

Using $5,000 the Hoyts had raised in 1972, the engineers built an interactive computer that allowed Rick to write out his thoughts using the slight head movements that he could manage. A cursor would move across a screen filled with rows of letters, and when the cursor highlighted a letter that Rick wanted, he would click a switch with the side of his head.

Anxiously awaiting their son’s first words, they were surprised by his wit when those first “spoken” words on his new communicator were not “Hi, Mom,” but rather, “Go Bruins!”

“Right then we learned that Rick had a love for sports,” Dick says.

In 1975 Rick finally was enrolled in public school. That hurdle bounded, Rick then told his dad he wanted to participate in a five-mile benefit run for a local lacrosse player who had been paralyzed in an accident. And so began a 20-some-year athletic partnership.

For the past two decades Dick, a recently retired lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard, has pushed and pulled his son across the country and over hundreds of finish lines. According to their website, “When Dick runs, Rick is in a wheelchair that Dick is pushing. When Dick cycles, Rick is in the seat-pod from his wheelchair, attached to the front of the bike. When Dick swims, Rick is in a small, firmly stabilized boat being pulled by Dick.”

In the beginning, the Hoyts were ostracized by the sports community and fellow competitors. But in spite of the snubbing, they got more involved in the competitions. Why? “Rick told us he just didn’t feel handicapped when we were competing.”

Gradually, attitudes began to change after “Team Hoyt” entered the Boston Marathon in 1981, and finished in the top quarter of the field.

“In time, athletes began to respect our efforts,” Dick says. “People now come up to us during races and say, ‘Hey, we just want to thank you because we were sitting on the sidelines. You inspired us to take part. Now, we’re in the best shape of our lives.’”

Though unable to attend church every Sunday because many of the meets take place at that time, both Rick and Dick are dedicated Christians, always willing to share their beliefs. When asked if he has questioned God why his son has had to undergo such difficulties, Dick is philosophical.

“We don’t know why,” he says. “We didn’t dwell on why. I believe God has used Rick to help others. He’s been a pioneer. Any time someone wants to try something new, they go to Rick because he’s got the patience and personality to handle everything. He understands their frustrations and hopes.”

A new theatrical documentary has a segment spotlighting the Hoyts’ remarkable life story. While they have already shared a modicum of fame, when “America’s Heart & Soul” hits theaters July 2, the father/son duo undoubtedly will notice a surge of notoriety. Are they prepared for such recognition?

“We’re actually looking forward to it,” Dick says. “Rick realizes that education is the key to understanding and accepting. That’s why he likes to get out in public, because he wants to make people aware.”
For more information about this inspiring father/son team, go to their website at: www.teamhoyt.com.

    About the Author

  • Phil Boatwright