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Racing Towards Inclusion
by David Tereshchuk
Dick and Rick Hoyt are a father-and-son team from Massachusetts who together compete just about continuously in marathon races. And if they’re not in a marathon they are in a triathlon — that daunting, almost superhuman, combination of 26.2 miles of running, 112 miles of bicycling, and 2.4 miles of swimming. Together they have climbed mountains, and once trekked 3,735 miles across America.
It’s a remarkable record of exertion — all the more so when you consider that Rick can't walk or talk.
For the past twenty five years or more Dick, who is 65, has pushed and pulled his son across the country and over hundreds of finish lines. 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 but heavy, firmly stabilized boat being pulled by Dick.
At Rick’s birth in 1962 the umbilical cord coiled around his neck and cut off oxygen to his brain. Dick and his wife, Judy, were told that there would be no hope for their child’s development.
"It’s been a story of exclusion ever since he was born," Dick told me. "When he was eight months old the doctors told us we should just put him away — he’d be a vegetable all his life, that sort of thing. Well those doctors are not alive any more, but I would like them to be able to see Rick now."
The couple brought their son home determined to raise him as "normally" as possible. Within five years, Rick had two younger brothers, and the Hoyts were convinced Rick was just as intelligent as his siblings. Dick remembers the struggle to get the local school authorities to agree: "Because he couldn’t talk they thought he wouldn’t be able to understand, but that wasn’t true." The dedicated parents taught Rick the alphabet. "We always wanted Rick included in everything," Dick said. "That’s why we wanted to get him into public school."
A group of Tufts University engineers came to the rescue, once they had seen some clear, empirical evidence of Rick’s comprehension skills. "They told him a joke," said Dick. "Rick just cracked up. They knew then that he could communicate!" The engineers went on to build — using $5,000 the family managed to raise in 1972 - an interactive computer that would allow Rick to write out his thoughts using the slight head-movements that he could manage. Rick came to call it "my communicator." 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.
When the computer was originally brought home, Rick surprised his family with his first "spoken" words. They had expected perhaps "Hi, Mom" or "Hi, Dad." But on the screen Rick wrote "Go Bruins." The Boston Bruins were in the Stanley Cup finals that season, and his family realized he had been following the hockey games along with everyone else. "So we learned then that Rick loved sports," said Dick.
In 1975, Rick was finally admitted into a public school. Two years later, he told his father he wanted to participate in a five-mile benefit run for a local lacrosse player who had been paralyzed in an accident. Dick, far from being a long-distance runner, agreed to push Rick in his wheelchair. They finished next to last, but they felt they had achieved a triumph. That night, Dick remembers, "Rick told us he just didn’t feel handicapped when we were competing."
Rick’s realization turned into a whole new set of horizons that opened up for him and his family, as "Team Hoyt" began to compete in more and more events. Rick reflected on the transformation process for me, using his now-familiar but ever-painstaking technique of picking out letters of the alphabet:
" What I mean when I say I feel like I am not handicapped when competing is that I am just like the other athletes, and I think most of the athletes feel the same way. In the beginning nobody would come up to me. However, after a few races some athletes came around and they began to talk to me. During the early days one runner, Pete Wisnewski had a bet with me at every race on who would beat who. The loser had to hang the winner’s number in his bedroom until the next race. Now many athletes will come up to me before the race or triathlon to wish me luck."
It is hard to imagine now the resistance which the Hoyts encountered early on, but attitudes did begin to change when they entered the Boston Marathon in 1981, and finished in the top quarter of the field. Dick recalls the earlier, less tolerant days with more sadness than anger:
"Nobody wanted Rick in a road race. Everybody looked at us, nobody talked to us, nobody wanted to have anything to do with us. But you can’t really blame them - people often are not educated, and they’d never seen anyone like us. As time went on, though, they could see he was a person — he has a great sense of humor, for instance. That made a big difference."
After 4 years of marathons, Team Hoyt attempted their first triathlon — and for this Dick had to learn to swim. "I sank like a stone at first" Dick recalled with a laugh "and I hadn’t been on a bike since I was six years old."
With a newly-built bike (adapted to carry Rick in front) and a boat tied to Dick’s waist as he swam, the Hoyts came in second-to-last in the competition held on Father’s Day 1985.
"We chuckle to think about that as my Father’s Day present from Rick, " said Dick.
They have been competing ever since, at home and increasingly abroad. Generally they manage to improve their finishing times. "Rick is the one who inspires and motivates me, the way he just loves sports and competing," Dick said.
And the business of inspiring evidently works as a two-way street. Rick typed out this testimony:
"Dad is one of my role models. Once he sets out to do something, Dad sticks to it whatever it is, until it is done. For example once we decided to really get into triathlons, dad worked out, up to five hours a day, five times a week, even when he was working."
The Hoyts’ mutual inspiration for each other seems to embrace others too — many spectators and fellow-competitors have adopted Team Hoyt as a powerful example of determination. "It’s been funny," said Dick "Some people have turned out, some in good shape, some really out of shape, and they say ‘we want to thank you, because we’re here because of you’."
Rick too has taken full note of their effect on fellow-competitors while racing:
"Whenever we are passed (usually on the bike) the athlete will say "Go for it!" or "Rick, help your Dad!" When we pass people (usually on the run) they’ll say "Go Team Hoyt!" or "If not for you, we would not be out here doing this."
Most of all, perhaps, the Hoyts can see an impact from their efforts in the area of the handicapped, and on public attitudes toward the physically and mentally challenged.
"That’s the big thing," said Dick. "People just need to be educated. Rick is helping many other families coping with disabilities in their struggle to be included."
That is not to say that all obstacles are now overcome for the Hoyts. Dick is "still bothered," he says, by people who are discomforted because Rick cannot fully control his tongue while eating. "In restaurants - and it’s only older people mostly - they’ll see Rick’s food being pushed out of his mouth and they’ll leave, or change their table. But I have to say that kind of intolerance is gradually being defeated."
Rick’s own accomplishments, quite apart from the duo’s continuing athletic success, have included his moving on from high school to Boston University, where he graduated in 1993 with a degree in special education. That was followed a few weeks later by another entry in the Boston Marathon. As he fondly pictured it: "On the day of the marathon from Hopkinton to Boston people all over the course were wishing me luck, and they had signs up which read `congratulations on your graduation!’"
Rick now works at Boston College’s computer laboratory helping to develop a system codenamed "Eagle Eyes," through which mechanical aids (like for instance a powered wheelchair) could be controlled by a paralyzed person’s eye-movements, when linked-up to a computer.
Together the Hoyts don’t only compete athletically; they also go on motivational speaking tours, spreading the Hoyt brand of inspiration to all kinds of audiences, sporting and non-sporting, across the country.
Rick himself is confident that his visibility — and his father’s dedication — perform a forceful, valuable purpose in a world that is too often divisive and exclusionary. He typed a simple parting thought:
"The message of Team Hoyt is that everybody should be included in everyday life."
David Tereshchuk is a documentary television producer. He currently works for the United Nations.