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Hoyts keep rolling again

Marathon mainstays at 20-year milestone

By Michael Vega, Globe Staff, 4/11/2000

t first, no one knew what to make of them.

Dick and Rick Hoyt Dick (top) and Rick Hoyt have been crossing the Boston Marathon finish lines form two decades. (Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)

When the Boston Athletic Association was approached in 1980 by a 40-year-old man from Holland, Mass., asking to enter the Boston Marathon as the ''arms and legs'' for his wheelchair-bound son, Rick, who had been born with cerebral palsy, the governing body balked.

''It was something brand new,'' said Dick Hoyt, now 59 and five years retired as a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard. ''Nobody had ever seen anything like this before.''

While the BAA was not exactly receptive to the notion of a father pushing his son in a tri-wheeled carriage over the famed course, ''They were never rude or nasty to us,'' Hoyt was quick to point out.

The BAA politely denied the request for an official number and told Hoyt that if he wanted to be officially recognized, he would have to qualify like everyone else.

And that's all Hoyt ever wanted for his son - to be treated just like everyone else, not as someone who should be institutionalized and forgotten, as one doctor callously suggested to Dick and Judy Hoyt shortly after the difficult birth.

After the Hoyts took Rick home, they began a lifelong quest to help him fit in the mainstream. They soon discovered that their love and devotion would help their son break down the barriers that have impeded others like him. They set his spirit free by allowing him to realize the pure joy of competition as a disabled marathoner and triathlete - with a little help from Dad, of course.

So after two years of unofficial entries, the Hoyts qualified for Boston in 1983 with a time of 2:45:23 in the People's Marathon in Washington, D.C.

''I've always said that I'm just lending Rick my arms and my legs,'' Dick said. ''He's the one with the heart. He's the one with the engine.''

The cold stares, the colder remarks, and other obstacles of exclusion have been overcome. Hoyt and his 38-year-old son are now warmly embraced by organizers and fans as fixtures in the Marathon.

''Now it wouldn't be the same without them,'' said Rob Hoyt, the middle brother of three, who will turn 36 on race day Monday. ''I think they have opened the door for a lot of physically challenged athletes to be able to be in competition with mainstream athletes.''

Who does not know of Team Hoyt by now? Who among the legion of Boston Marathon fans has not been moved by the sight of Dick, his legs churning and burning, pushing Rick? When they compete, the Hoyts are swept along by a wave of adulation that, Dick said, ''lifts you up and makes you feel like you're running on air.'' The cheering, he said, ''leaves our ears ringing for two weeks.''

The Hoyts, woven into the fabric of a rich tapestry of competitors like Joan Benoit Samuelson, Bill Rodgers, and Johnny Kelley, have become an integral part of the annual trek from Hopkinton to Boston.

When the Hoyts take their customary starting spot Monday, just behind the wheelchair athletes, it will mark their 20th Boston race and 60th marathon overall.

''I think they've been a source of both pride and inspiration for those who've enjoyed the Marathon for the last 20 years,'' said race director Guy Morse. ''They've come to symbolize hope and inclusion, which is what we've strived for here in Boston.

''Everybody has marveled at Rick's enthusiasm for the race, and everybody has marveled at Dick's record of athletic achievement in Boston. He actually qualifies for the race. It's quite an accomplishment, and I think the Boston community is aware of the level of his accomplishments.''

In Rick's tidy Brookline apartment, where he lives on his own with the aid of a personal care assistant, a living room wall is festooned with ribbons, medals, banners, plaques, and posters. On the opposite wall is a floor-to-ceiling quilt made from a goose-down comforter sewn with T-shirts from the many events the Hoyts have competed in all over the world.

There is a framed photograph of the Hoyts with Ronald Reagan during a 1989 visit to the former president's home in California, and another with Dave Cowens and Cam Neely at a black-tie gala for the New England Sports Museum. They are cherished mementos of their racing career, of a father's devotion to his son.

''It's pretty wild,'' said Russ, 32, the youngest of the Hoyt sons. ''But it's definitely not surprising that they've gotten into it the way they have, knowing my dad and how he dedicated he is. What's been amazing is all the respect and recognition they've gotten from people all around the world.''

Expressive personality

Rick, a 1993 Boston University graduate, works as a computer consultant at Boston College's Campus School, where he helps develop computer programs for disabled children.

Though unable to speak, Rick communicates with the assistance of a computer designed in 1974 by Tufts University and paid for with $5,000 the Hoyts cobbled together from tag sales, dinner dances, and various fund-raisers.

When the computer was hooked up, Rick's parents eagerly awaited their son's first words - joking among themselves that they would be ''Hi, Mom!'' or ''Hi, Dad!'' - but they broke up in laughter when the computer's digitized voice uttered, ''Go Bruins!''

''The Bruins were playing for the Stanley Cup at the time,'' Dick said. ''He was a big fan.''

On this day of this interview, the computer was inoperable, but Rick was not deterred from exulting in the memories of the 20 Boston Marathons he has experienced with his father. Dick deciphered his son's subtle facial movements and head bobs, but when Rick was asked if passing through the BU campus near Kenmore Square still ranked as his favorite part of the route, no translation was needed for the broad smile that creased his face.

''What a personality, without a doubt,'' said Rob. ''The ability for Rick to smile like that, considering his life situation, is certainly an inspiration to me.''

It was the same expression Rick wore when he and his father crossed the finish line of their first race - ''next to last, but not last,'' Dick joked - a charity 10K for a Westfield State lacrosse player who had been paralyzed in an auto accident. Unbeknownst to many, it was Rick's idea to enter the race, and some criticized the elder Hoyt.

''Mostly they were from other families who had children with disabilities,'' Dick said. ''We got a lot of phone calls. There were a lot of people upset with me who said, `What are you doing dragging that poor kid out there? He's disabled.' But Rick's been mainstreamed all of his life, and he's been included, and that's the way we feel it should be. The big thing right now is going around and educating people that that's the way it should be.''

But the next day, Dick recalled, ''I was the one who felt handicapped. I couldn't move. I was so sore all over.''

But Hoyt was soom uplifted and ready for more when Rick delivered this message via his computer: ''Dad, when we're running, I feel like I'm not even handicapped.''

''That's when I knew we had found a sport for him to participate in,'' Dick said.

Brotherly love

At first, Rick's younger brothers, particularly Rob, struggled with the attention he got.

''Rob had a hard time with it,'' Dick said. ''Rob was the middle one. He's 35 now, but back then he couldn't understand why we had to spend so much time with Rick, but at least Russ had Rob, so it wasn't so difficult for him.''

Said Rob, ''I just felt, at an earlier age, that I had a lot of responsibility put on me. I felt like his babysitter, but as I progressed with my ability, Rick's disability became more apparent to me.''

As they grew to become gifted athletes at Westfield High - Rob was captain of the swim team and an all-state selection, and Russ was a three-sport star who excelled as captain of the wrestling team, going undefeated and winning all-state recognition his senior year - they could count on their older brother to be in the stands at every meet or game.

Now the roles are reversed.

''We look at it now that we have a chance to give back to him by being there for him and my father,'' said Russ, who, along with Rob, was the support staff for Team Hoyt's two Ironman Triathlon appearances in Hawaii, assisting in the transitions from swim gear to bike equipment to marathon chair.

''They've had races where they've gotten lost, gone a couple of miles off track, and still wound up not finishing last,'' Russ said. ''They've had their share of flat tires, and there was the time when they were running their first triathlon together, and Dad was pulling Rick on a tow-cart in the bike portion of the race. It accidentally tipped over, and Rick fell and got a little road rash from that. They've had their ups and downs, but they've had more ups than downs.''

One particular high came at Russ's expense in his first triathlon.

''I was 18 at the time, and I had been a competitive swimmer, but I hadn't done anything to train,'' Russ recalled. ''I mean, I was 18 and I felt invincible, as most 18-year-olds do.''

He felt even more so when he shaved three minutes off his father's and brother's five-minute headstart in the swim portion.

''Then I passed them about 2 miles into the bike race,'' Russ said. ''When I went by them, I told them I'd be waiting for them at the finish line, sitting under a shady tree, having a cold one.''

He took a 30-minute lead into a 5.7-mile run, but there was one problem.

''When I got off the bike, I was cooked. I was finished,'' Russ said with a laugh. ''About 5 miles into it, I remember hearing the whum-whum-whum of the wheels on Rick's chair as it came from behind me. As they went by, I looked over and I could see Rick going crazy.''

Said Rob, ''I've heard other runners talk about how you can always hear the Hoyts coming from behind, because you hear Dad's plodding feet. It's like a locomotion train going right by you. You can almost feel the breeze.''

It's a scene that will likely be played out again Monday. There are no signs of Team Hoyt slowing down.

''They're planning to go to Germany for a triathlon, then they're talking to people about going back to Hawaii for the Ironman,'' Rob said. ''There's Boston, which is a must, and then there's the Marine Corps Marathon. So that's two triathlons, two marathons, plus they also like to do the Falmouth Road Race. Then when the weather warms up, they do the smaller sprint triathlons every other weekend.

''So I don't know how it's going to end,'' Rob said. ''With Dad turning 60 in June, I'd think there'd certainly be a limitation, but he's very fit for a man his age. I don't know if they'll fade out or what. I know they're going to be remembered, but I don't know what's going to happen. That part of the story hasn't been written yet.''

How many more Bostons can they do? Can they keep up their hectic pace for another 10 years? Another 20?

''I don't know,'' Dick said. ''With this one, we'll have done more consecutive marathons than anyone in the field. If I feel like I do right now, I don't see why we should stop.''

Then, turning to his son, Dick said, ''What do you think, Rick? Think I'll be able to do this when I'm 80? Think we can go for Johnny Kelley's record?''

Rick registered his enthusiastic approval with another broad smile. ''Sure,'' Dick said. ''Why not?''

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