Father-son duo are world class competitors, despite odds
November 29, 1999
BOSTON (CNN) -- When Rick Hoyt was 15, he communicated something to his father that changed both their lives. "Dad," the mute quadriplegic wrote in his computer after his father pushed him in a wheelchair in a five-kilometer race, "I felt like I wasn't handicapped."
Rick, now 37, has had cerebral palsy since birth. But he has always been treated simply as one of the family, included by his now-divorced parents in almost everything brothers Rob and Russell did.
"They told us to put Rick away, in an institution, (because) he's going to be nothing but a vegetable for the rest of his life," his father remembers.
"We said, 'No, we're not going to do that. We're going to bring Rick home and bring him up like any other child,'" says Dick Hoyt, 59, a retired lieutenant colonel with the Air National Guard. "And this is what we have done."
'Every Boston Marathon since 1981'
For more than 20 years, Dick has either towed, pushed or carried Rick in a string of athletic challenges including every Boston Marathon since 1981 and, most recently, last month's Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Hawaii.
For that event, competitors have to swim 2 1/2 miles through the ocean and then peddle a bicycle 112 miles before running a hilly, 26.2-mile marathon.
In the triathlon swim, Rick lies on his back in a rubber raft attached by rope to a wetsuit vest worn by his father. In the bike portion, Rick sits in a chair attached to the front of Dick's bike, and on the run, Dick pushes Rick in the race chair.
This year, it took them 16 hours and 14 minutes to finish the 140-mile day of reckoning -- about two hours slower than their first try, in 1989. But time isn't the point. Teamwork is. The Hoyts are the only tandem ever to complete the Ironman Triathlon World Championships together.
'The biggest smile you ever saw in your life'
The spark for this lifetime of patience and devotion was ignited in 1977.
The teen-age Rick asked his father if he could participate in a five-kilometer (3.1 mile) race to benefit an athlete paralyzed in an accident. Dick agreed and pushed his son the entire distance in a jerry-rigged chair that now resides in the Massachusetts Sports Hall of Fame.
As they crossed the finish line that day, Rick flashed "the biggest smile you ever saw in your life," his father told CNN. When they got home, Rick went to a specially built computer that allowed him to communicate using a head switch to select letters and spell out words.
The message Rick typed, expressing his joy of feeling "like I wasn't handicapped," began an odyssey of love that continues to this day, taking father and son to competitions around the world. It even inspired Dick to learn how to swim.
"He's the one who has motivated me because if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be out there competing," says Dick. "What I'm doing is loaning Rick my arms and legs so he can be out there competing like everybody else."
The competitor completes college
And yet, for all of their athletic achievement, the Hoyt family's greatest pride came in 1993 when Rick, a young man with no use of his legs or arms or of his tongue got his Bachelor of Science degree from Boston University.
"It just gives me a great feeling that he's been able to accomplish all of these things (when) they said he was going to be nothing but a vegetable," his proud father says.
While Rick made the grades, much of the credit for making that possible goes to his mother. It was Judy Hoyt who battled to have a state law changed so that her son could attend public school.
'The only place where truly I feel as an equal'
Rick now lives in his own apartment near the B.U. campus with the assistance of personal care attendants, and works at the university developing computers to aid disabled people. He and Dick travel the country giving motivational speeches and, of course, they battle the road, as a unit -- participating in upwards of 50 races a year, touching everyone with whom they come in contact.
After coming this far against the odds, it's understandable to hear Dick say, "There is nothing in the world that the both of us can't conquer together."
But mental determination and physical stamina tell only part of the Hoyt story. A message of independence and acceptance typed by Rick typed on his computer complete the picture:
"When I am running, my disability seems to disappear. It is the only place where truly I feel as an equal. Due to all the positive feedback, I do not feel handicapped at all. Rather, I feel that I am the intelligent person that I am with no limits. I have a message for the world which is this: To take time to get to know people with disabilities for the individuals they are."
Correspondent Jim Huber contributed to this report
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