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Yes You Can!
By Michael W. Michelsen Jr.

If Dick Hoyt is trying to guilt me into being a better father, I have to admit that he’s accomplished his mission very well.  That’s not to say that I’m not a good father, I am, but if it came down to comparing the two of us, he leaves me in the dust.  Literally.

In 1962, Dick and his wife, Judy, had a son, Rick, who was born with cerebral palsy, the result of oxygen deprivation to his brain after the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck on delivery. 

“He was beautiful,” Dick said.  “He was strong and he was lying on his stomach, and Intensive Unit thought he was doing pushups, but he was actually having spasms.”

Doctors told Dick and Judy Hoyt that their son would never be able to walk or talk.  They recommended that the couple institutionalize their son and forget about him because he would be in a vegetative state his entire life.  They didn’t know Dick and Judy Hoyt.

“We told them no, that we were going to take Rick home and bring him up like our other two sons, like any other child.”

“Fortunately, it occurred to us pretty early on that all we really had to do was to push Rick in his wheelchair, and he could go anywhere,” Dick said. “Pretty soon, we were taking him to the beach and everywhere else we went.  And when the kids would play hockey, all they had to do was to put the hockey stick in his hands and guide his wheelchair around.  We did everything with Rick that we did with our other sons.”

Every day, while Dick, a Lt. Col. in the National Guard, was at work, Judy taught Rick since school officials, assuming he could not communicate or understand what was going on around him, would not allow him to attend public schools.  But at age 11, the Hoyts took their son to the engineering department of Tufts University in search of a method that would allow him to “speak.”  Initially, the staff rejected the idea, since they felt Rick’s inner world was nonexistent.

“We knew otherwise, so I told one of the engineers to tell him a joke,” Dick recalled, “and when he did, Rick laughed.  That convinced them that Rick was capable of understanding, and that he was aching to reach out to the world.  All he needed was a tool that would enable him.”

Eventually, the Tufts engineers developed a computer with an interactive cursor that Rick could operate by moving his head, the only part of his body that he can control, despite his cerebral palsy.  The engineers called the machine the Tufts Interactive Communicator, or TIC, but the Hoyts called it The Hope Machine.  When encouraged to test the machine for the first time, researchers and the Hoyts thought Rick would type out something common such as “Hi, Mom!” or “Hi, Dad,” but always the sports fan, Rick slowly typed his first words, “GO BRUINS!”

Soon, Rick was admitted to school.  The only exception made in the curriculum to accommodate him was to substitute study hall in the library for physical education, a situation the gym teacher, “Doc” Steve Sartori, found unacceptable, insisting that Rick begin attending and participating in many of the same activities as other students.

Sartori and Rick soon became fast friends, so when Satori asked the Hoyts if he could take Rick to a college basketball game with him, Rick was ecstatic.  It was at that game that Rick noticed a sign announcing a 5-mile run to benefit a classmate who had been paralyzed in an accident.  It was on that day in 1977 that the athletic phenomenon known as Team Hoyt began.

“Rick came home from that game and asked me if I would help him participate in that benefit run,” Dick explained.  “I wasn’t sure at the time what to think.  Here I was, 40 years old, not a runner, and my son wants me to push him in a foot race?”

If Dick wasn’t sure what to think, the feeling was compounded by race organizers when the pair showed up at the event.  Team Hoyt didn’t fit any of the existing categories.

“When we arrived, race organizers weren’t sure where or if we fit in anywhere,” Dick said.  “I wasn’t running by myself, and Rick wasn’t pushing his own wheelchair.  And when it came time to enter the age of the entrant, would we say 40 for me, or 17 for Rick?  They were also concerned that with me pushing a wheelchair, I would get in everyone else’s way.  They had a real dilemma on their hands.”

Eventually, the Hoyts ran as bandits, without official numbers or registrations, but still ran in the events, regardless of length or difficulty.  Race officials relented because they decided that the Hoyts probably would not get around the first corner, but Dick’s perseverance allowed them to finish the event.  And although they didn’t place, the victory came later at home when Rick tapped a message on his computer: “Dad, when I’m running, it feels like I’m not handicapped.”

That was all the encouragement Dick needed to hear.  Dick recalled.  “Making Rick happy was the greatest feeling in the world.”

Dick began training every day by running around his neighborhood pushing a bag of cement in a wheelchair, since Rick was in school and unable to participate.

“I’m sure that by that time, our neighbors thought I was either crazy or trying to build something in a terrible hurry,” Dick joked.  “The truth is, it took quite a bit of engineering to make this project worthwhile.  Due to Rick’s spasms, a wheelchair has to be specially fitted for him, and to make it possible to be pushed, as in a race, is no small feat.”

As of April 21, 2009, the Hoyts have competed in 1,000 endurance races, including 67 marathons and 27 Boston Marathons.  In 1987, Team Hoyt began competing in Ironman competitions.  And although the running and biking presented a big enough challenge, the 2.6-mile swim was toughest, since at the time Dick could not swim.  Determined not to disappoint Rick, Dick not only learned to swim, but also designed an inflatable boat that is heavily balanced and stabilized to support Rick, and that Dick pulls behind him.  He also designed a special seat on the front of his bike for the 112-mile bike riding portion of the Ironmans.

The team’s first serious bump came in 2003 when Dick suffered a heart attack, although he was told at the time that his heavy training probably was the reason he survived. 

“I had gone to the doctor because I was having a strange tickling feeling in my throat,” Dick said.  “When the doctor told me after an EKG was performed that one of my arteries was 95 percent blocked, I was shocked.  I felt fine, but the doctor told me that I needed surgery immediately.”

The surgery prevented Team Hoyt from participating in that year’s Boston Marathon for the first time in 22 years.  “The response we got shocked me,” Dick said.  “When the news got out that I needed surgery, people from all over the country volunteered to push Rick through the Boston Marathon, or at least to push him for portions of it.  I asked Rick what he wanted to do, and he declined to participate since Team Hoyt is a team.”

That feeling of team spirit is reflected in Dick’s viewpoint also, when he humbly explains, “I’m not the athlete, Rick is.  I’m just there to lend my arms and legs so we can compete together.  People frequently look at my times and tell me that I should compete on my own, but the truth is, I have no interest in participating without Rick.  Besides, without Rick, I wouldn’t know what to do with my arms.”

Team Hoyt has become, arguably, two of the most famous distance runners in the world.  When Dick isn’t training, and Rick isn’t working at his job as a writer, they are either touring the world giving motivational talks, or participating in athletic events.

Team Hoyt has met with President Ronald Reagan and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.  They have appeared on hundreds of television programs, including Oprah and the Today Show.  A documentary about Team Hoyt was finished in 1992.  They have even written a book titled, “It’s Only a Mountain,” reflecting their philosophy that the only difference between a hill and a mountain is attitude.  Despite all of the accolades, Dick admits that their proudest moment came in 2008, when Team Hoyt was inducted into the Ironman Hall of Fame in Kona, Hawaii.

Most recently, Team Hoyt is being featured in a campaign sponsored by The Foundation for a Better Life, promoting their slogan, “Yes, I Can.”

With all they have going for them, there are no plans to slow down, much less quit.  Although at the beginning of 2009, plans were to cut back on the number of races and appearances they participated in, thus far, they have taken part in more activities than in 2008.  “It’s funny,” Dick said, “In the beginning, nobody wanted us around, but now, we get invitations all of the time to participate in races.  We started turning race organizers away years ago.  We’re pretty selective now.  Otherwise, we’d have to have a race every day.”

Whether a slowdown happens or not, Team Hoyt continues to inspire others worldwide.  Practically every day, the Hoyts receive letters and e-mail thanking them for their message of hope.

“The other day, I received an e-mail from a woman who had endured several serious setbacks in her life,” Dick said.  “As a result, she was contemplating suicide.  It was then that she saw something about us in the media, and she decided that if Rick could overcome his obstacles, so could she.  We get messages like that all of the time.  It’s a feeling that is hard to describe.  At one time, we lived to be inspired by other people.  Now, we hear how much of an inspiration we are to others.  It’s a feeling I can’t describe.”

For additional pictures of Dick and Rick click here.

Micheal W. Michelson Jr. Bio:

Michael W. Michelsen, Jr. is a freelance writer who specializes in business and technology subjects.  He lives with his wife in Southern California.  He will become a grandfather for the first time in August.

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