HOLLAND, Mass. — The year was 1992, and Dick Hoyt and his son, Rick, wanted to run and bike across the country to raise funds for a charity for cerebral palsy — a condition 30-year-old Rick developed at birth.
But the charity didn’t want anything to do with a trek across the United States.
“And, uh, so this insurance company that was going to finance us backed out with four weeks to go before — so we had to refinance our house here so we are able to pick up the expenses,” Dick Hoyt recalled recently, sitting next to his quadriplegic son at their home in the hills of western Massachusetts.
Twenty-one years later, after running, biking and swimming together in some of the world’s highest-profile competitions, 73-year-old father and 51-year-old son are among the most recognized faces at the granddaddy of them all — the Boston Marathon.
One of the race’s sponsors recently unveiled a life-size statue in their honor in the town where the race starts. Another backer, Timex, pushed so strongly to be identified with the duo that it would allow them to talk to The Associated Press only if the article mentioned the two are promoting the watch maker’s social media campaign.
They’ve gone from being skeptics dogged by veiled references about abuse to visionaries, even heroes, mirroring how perception and treatment of people with disabilities have changed over the years.
“When we started running in road races and stuff, I used to get a lot of phone calls and letters from other families that had disabled people, and they were very upset with me; they said, ‘What are you doing dragging the disabled son through all these races? Are you just looking for glory for yourself?’” Dick Hoyt said. “What they didn’t realize: He was the one dragging me through all these races.”
Father and son had to get creative to race together.
Dick pushes Rick in a specially designed wheelchair when they run together. When swimming, Rick wears a life jacket and is belted into a seat that’s towed by a rope attached to Dad’s wetsuit vest. For biking, the younger Hoyt sits in a chair at the front of Dad’s bicycle.
Rick developed a severe form of cerebral palsy, a condition that limits motor skills, during birth, when the umbilical cord became wrapped around his neck and cut oxygen to his brain.
Dick rejected doctors’ suggestions that he put his infant son in an institution. Rick later went to public school and joined Boston University.
“This would prove one of the most difficult tasks I’d ever endure, but, finally, after nine long years, I became the first quadriplegic to graduate from the Boston University School of Education,” Rick said through a computer synthesizer he uses for communication. “This has been my greatest personal accomplishment to date because I have shown to disabled people that they don’t have to sit back and watch the world go by.”
Rick has run, biked and swum with his father in 1,092 races — including 252 triathlons, 70 marathons and 95 half-marathons — over the past 34 years, including a wartime race in El Salvador in which they had to be escorted by armed men.
Kim Rossiter, of Virginia Beach, Va., a major in the U.S. Marines, says the Hoyts inspired him to go running with his 9-year-old daughter, Ainsley, after she was diagnosed with an incurable neurological disorder that keeps her in a wheelchair.
“Immediately, my family found a therapy. It’s a therapy like no other,” said Rossiter, who has run in at least 42 races with Ainsley. “You cannot imagine the look on her face as the wind blows in her face while running.”
Tammy Stapleton, of Reading, Mass., is a mother of three girls who will be running Boston for the third time this year, after raising more than $12,000 for the nonprofit Hoyt Foundation Inc., which helps disabled people get specialized wheelchairs and communication equipment, as well as access to therapeutic animals.
“The Hoyts are my heroes, and the girls look up to them,” Stapleton said. “Dick is doing it not for his own glory.”
It all began at a college basketball game where Rick, 19 at the time, heard an announcement about a benefit run for an athlete who had become paralyzed in an accident. Rick said he felt he had to participate in the 5-mile race to show the victim “that life goes on and he could still lead a productive life.”
His father, who was then 40 and whose athletic feats were limited to the occasional run of a couple of miles, said he agreed to push Rick’s clunky wheelchair, not realizing a streamlined racing chair would have made the experience less painful.
“After that race, I was really hurting,” he said. “I could hardly walk for about two weeks, and so that’s when I talked to Rick and told him that we were going to have to get a new chair so I won’t be hurting as badly.”
Rick’s reaction after the race, his dad said, was inspiring and made it impossible to quit.
“What he told me is, ‘Dad,’ he says, ‘when I’m out running it feels like my disability disappears’ — which is a very powerful message to me,” Dick said.
So the Hoyts traveled to Greenfield, N.H., where an engineer designed and built a custom racing chair.
Rick says the Boston Marathon is his favorite race — despite the bugs in his face and the sometimes-cold New England spring winds.
“His body doesn’t move, where I can stay warm, you know, because I’m out there running, competing and stuff,” Dick said.
Their journey has not been without pain, both physical and emotional. Rick’s parents divorced and his mother later died of cancer. And while father and son were participating in the Ironman race in Hawaii in 2003 — a famously grueling test of swimming, biking and running — they crashed at the 85-mile mark of the bicycle ride and spent five hours in the emergency room.
“He had stitches all over his head, he had cuts all over himself, he was all bruised up,” Dick said of his son. “But he’s got a great attitude about it, too, because the Ironman finishes at midnight and we didn’t get out of the hospital until 2 o’clock in the morning — and he wanted to go out and finish the Ironman.”
The races have taken a toll on Dick, too, who suffered a heart attack while training for Boston in 2002. Doctors discovered two major arteries were largely blocked, and he had three stents inserted.
Besides, pushing a wheelchair for 26.2 miles can be excruciating.
“You are out there pushing your own weight, and then you’ve got the weight of the running chair, and then Rick’s weight,” Dick said. “And when you are out there going up hills, it’s really terrible.”
Still, the experiences are priceless, Rick said.
“I have thought long and hard about what I would do if I weren’t in a wheelchair. I really don’t know what I would do first. I love sports, so maybe I would play hockey, basketball or baseball,” Rick said. “But then I thought about it some more and realized that what I would probably do first is tell my dad to sit on the wheelchair — and now I’d push him.”