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Dick Hoyt, who runs marathons with his disabled son, impresses at Freshman Family Weekend

For parents and their freshman students who were reuniting on the Providence College campus for the first time since September, Dick Hoyt was the perfect speaker for Freshman Family Weekend.

Hoyt’s devotion to his son, Rick, who was born with cerebral palsy 51 years ago, has driven both men to compete in more than 1,100 competitions, including Boston Marathons and Ironman Triathlons, in their native Massachusetts and around the world.

Hoyt, who is 73, pushes Rick in a wheelchair on runs, pulls him in a boat on swims, and pedals a bike with him perched in a seat above the front tire. The Hoyt Foundation, established in 1989, advocates for the disabled and raises money for organizations such as Easter Seals and Boston Children’s Hospital.

Dick Hoyt “was the perfect speaker for parents’ weekend because he personifies the qualities of love, inspiration, and fortitude,” said Juliette Giorgio, mother of Jillian Giorgio ’17 (Garden City, N.Y.). She stood in a long line after Hoyt’s talk for a chance to speak with him and have him autograph a book.

“He will leave a lasting impression on everyone who heard him. This was on point, perfect,” said Giorgio.

Freshman Family Weekend drew more than 500 families to campus from November 1-3. Among many activities, parents and students watched ice hockey and basketball games, saw The Good Doctor performed on stage, toured the new Ruane Center for the Humanities, attended panel discussions on parenting, and participated in a mock lecture in the Development of Western Civilization Program.

“It feels like my disability disappears”

 

Hoyt was invited to participate as part of the College’s exploration of the issue of disability, which began with the reading of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, the Freshman Common Reading Program book this academic year.

The crowd of 1,200 people in the Peterson Recreation Center welcomed Hoyt with a standing ovation, prompting him to remark, “Wow, a standing ovation and I haven’t said a word.”

Though “Team Hoyt” is known around the world — having competed in Japan, Germany, and El Salvador — the future didn’t look so bright when Richard Hoyt was born in 1962. He was diagnosed at 8 months old with cerebral palsy, the result of oxygen deprivation at birth. Doctors advised his parents to “forget Rick, put him in an institution, he’ll be nothing but a vegetable for the rest of his life,” Hoyt remembered.

 

“Today Rick is 51 years old, and we still haven’t figured out what kind of vegetable he is,” Hoyt said.

Rick and Judy Hoyt knew their son was bright “by looking in his eyes,” so they taught him “the alphabet and numbers and did a lot of reading with him.” Because he could not speak, they asked engineers to build him a communication machine. The experts refused, believing Rick was incapable of understanding them.

 

The Hoyts suggested the engineers tell Rick a joke. When they did, he laughed. They agreed to build the machine for $5,000. Rick’s first words on it were, “Go Bruins!” The Hoyts fought a similar battle to send him to public school.

In 1977, Rick heard about a benefit road race for a college lacrosse player paralyzed in an accident. He told his father he wanted to compete in the race to show the player that his life wasn’t over just because he couldn’t walk.

Dick Hoyt was in his 40s, only a recreational runner, and jogging strollers hadn’t been invented yet. He pushed Rick’s heavy wheelchair the entire five-mile course, finishing  “second to last, not last,” Hoyt said.

After the race, Rick told his father, “Dad, when I’m running it feels like my disability disappears.” He called himself “Free Bird” and put the words on a sign attached to his chair.

Hoyt found more engineers who used pipes and tubing to create a lighter running chair for Rick. The father and son next competed in a 10K in Springfield, Mass.,with Rick again thrusting his arms in the air at the finish line. People who had been wary of the Hoyts before began to relax and allow them to compete.

“People saw he had personality and a sense of humor,” said Hoyt.

“We’ve been able to break down a lot of barriers”

 

But their challenges weren’t over. Hoyt’s request to participate in the Boston Marathon was rejected in 1981 for both the individual and wheelchair divisions because, he was told, “You’re different than everyone else.” The Hoyts lined up as unofficial competitors at the back of the pack, avoiding all water stops because Hoyt wasn’t sure he could navigate in and out of them safely. They finished in 3 hours and 18 minutes.

 

Though the Hoyts improved to 2 hours and 50 minutes in 1982, the Boston Marathon said the Hoyts couldn’t compete officially because they had no qualifying criteria. They would need a race time under 2 hours and 50 minutes — the qualifying time for someone Rick’s age, not Dick’s.

“It was their way of getting rid of us,” Dick said.

Team Hoyt met the challenge by entering “the people’s marathon,” the Marine Marathon in Washington, D.C., and running it in 2 hours, 45 minutes, and 23 seconds. They qualified for Boston and have been official entrants ever since. 

In 1996, on the Boston Marathon’s 100th anniversary, the Hoyts were honored as “Centennial Heroes.” A bronze statue of them stands 300 yards from the marathon starting line in Hopkinton, Mass.

“We’ve come a long way and been able to break down a lot of barriers along the way,” Hoyt said. 

“What a hero”

The Hoyts set their eyes on triathlons next, though Dick could not swim, had not been on a bike since age 6, and had only nine months to train. In their first try, they finished “next to last, but not last,” and went on to compete in 279 more.

In 1989, the Hoyts completed the famed Ironman Triathlon in Kona, Hawaii — a 2.4-mile ocean swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile marathon. Since then, they have competed in five Ironmans. For the swim portions, Rick reclines in a life preserver on a beanbag chair on the floor of a 9-foot Boston Whaler that’s attached to Dick’s swim vest.

In another endurance test in 1992, the Hoyts ran and biked across the United States, from Santa Monica Pier in California to Long Wharf in Boston, covering 3,770 miles in 45 straight days, without a day off. The next morning, they competed in a triathlon in Fairlee, Vt.

Rick Hoyt graduated from Boston University in 1993 and lives in his own apartment with the help of aides. Due to their advancing years, the Hoyts plan to skip most long races in the future, though they will run their final Boston Marathon in 2014, having been stopped at the 22-mile marker by the bombing this year.

After Hoyt’s presentation, Lauren O’Loughlin ’14 (Hopkinton, Mass.) stood in line to meet him for the first time.

“He’s a celebrity in my hometown,” O’Loughlin said. “He’s a huge inspiration, and I loved to hear him talk.”

“What a hero,” said Mary Ellen Hudner, the mother of James Hudner ’17 (Canton, Mass.). “I’ve seen them in the marathon year after year. I had no idea they had done the Ironman Triathlon. That’s beyond incredible. It just blows my mind. It humbles me that somebody would go to the lengths that he goes. He’ll be a saint up in heaven, that’s for sure.

 
 

— Vicki-Ann Downing

  
 
 
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