In 1977, 15-year-old Rick Hoyt of Sturbridge, Mass. (pop. 8,860), brought home a flyer from school for a 5-mile footrace to benefit a lacrosse player paralyzed in an accident. Rick, who was born with cerebral palsy and unable to speak or control his limbs, used a head-controlled computer voice synthesizer to ask his father, Dick Hoyt, if they could participate in the race. Rick wanted to prove to the athlete that life goes on, even with disability.
Dick wasn’t much of a runner, but he pushed Rick in his wheelchair to a next-to-last finish. The youngster was grinning ear-to-ear when they crossed the finish line. “I used my computer to tell Dad, ‘When we’re racing, I don’t feel disabled,’” recalls Rick, now 44.
From that moment on, Dick committed himself to getting into shape so he could help his son enjoy the thrill of competing. The father and son dubbed themselves Team Hoyt and have since completed more than 950 triathlons, duathlons and marathons. To compete in triathlons, Dick pushes Rick’s specially designed wheelchair during the run, balances him on the front of a customized road bike as he cycles and pulls him in a rubber float while he swims.
“Dick is 23 years older than me and he pushes Rick’s 110 pounds, but so far I haven’t beaten them,” says Elvera Pingeton, 44, of Oxford, Mass., who was inspired by Dick 10 years ago to take up running. “Dick’s love for his son drives him. This is his way of achieving freedom for Rick.”
Despite Rick’s disabilities, his parents, Dick and Judy, decided from his birth to raise him like any other child. “Doctors said to institutionalize him, that he’d be a vegetable for life,” says Dick, now 67 and living in Holland, Mass. (pop. 2,536). Instead, they brought him home and had two more sons, Rob and Russ.
“For years I thought all families had someone in a wheelchair,” says Russ Hoyt, 39, of Billerica, Mass. (pop. 39,963). “We did everything together, from playing street hockey with a hockey stick tied to Rick’s wheelchair, to climbing Mount Monadnock (in New Hampshire). Dad threw Rick over his back or carried him in his arms while my mother, brother and I climbed up behind them.”
Rick has overcome adversity—and triumphed—in many pursuits. He graduated from Westfield High School at age 19, earned his bachelor’s degree in special education from Boston University, and worked with Boston College to develop Eagle Eyes technology, which allows the disabled to control a computer using eye movements.
A favorite race for the father-and-son team is the Boston Marathon. “The best part is the screaming crowd calling out our names as we finish,” Rick says. Team Hoyt ran its first Boston Marathon in 1981 and has missed only two races since.
“Rick’s enthusiasm and passion is awesome,” says Dave McGillivray, race director of the Boston Marathon. “Dick provides the legs and Rick is the heart, soul and inspiration.”
To celebrate their 25th Boston Marathon together last year, Team Hoyt raised $370,000 through pledges, fund-raising dinners and a sports memorabilia auction. The money was given to Easter Seals in gratitude for assistance programs and camps Rick has attended through the years.
Team Hoyt’s ultimate goal is to inspire others to include the disabled in their lives. As part of that effort, the two often give motivational speeches for corporations, schools and not-for-profit organizations, sharing their amazing story and motto, “There’s no such word as can’t.”
“We are educating the world about people with disabilities,” Rick says, “making them more aware of the issues the disabled face every day. I am a person with a brain and intelligence. I want the opportunity to be included in everyday life and treated like everyone else.”