He Ain't Heavy,
He's My Son by Geoff Marchant
Article by Geoff Marchant as published in the Road
Runners Club of America website
On Father's Day, June 16, 1985, Rick Hoyt celebrated with
his father Dick at Spot Pond in Medford, Mass. The pair had
decided to swim a mile together. Their choice of activity
was odd since Dick had only learned to swim the year before,
and Rick had only covered such a distance once, a week earlier.
But they had planned the event and were excited to carry
it through. Dick, broad-shouldered and with short, powerful
arms, youthful at age 45, appeared up to the challenge as
he waded into the pond. Rick, age 23, looked ready and excited.
And well he might be. He did not have to do any of the work
over the next hour, just enjoy the ride. But then, Rick could
not do any of the work. He had been born a nonverbal quadriplegic.
Now he sat in a life jacket, belted to a chair in a nine-foot
dinghy. A long rope ran from the bow to the ring in the back
of the wetsuit vest that his father wore. In this fashion
their swim began.
The start of something big
After the swim, the two intended to bike 40 miles together
and complete their afternoon with a 10-mile run. The sun should
have been shining and a band playing, but instead Dick and
Rick hunched against a downpour as race director Dave McGillivray
announced, "We have the Hoyts here, and they're going
to do a triathlon, but we don't know what's going to happen."
The adverse weather was nothing to the Hoyts, or at least,
nothing new. They were used to adversity. In fact, it sharpened
their edge. The first adversity was dealt to Judy and Dick
Hoyt in January of 1962, when complications in Rick's birth
left him speechless and nearly motionless. The delivery had
been dangerous. "They almost lost both of us," Judy
said. The couple battled through disbelief, denial, and agony,
finally consulting a specialist at Children's Hospital in
Boston. The doctor suggested that the Hoyts follow the usual
procedure -- put Rick in an institution. The doctor said,
"You should put him behind you and start again. He will
be a vegetable for life."
Judy described the couple's feelings by saying, "We
felt like we were at the bottom of a black hole. Someone had
just put a cover over our dreams and snuffed them out."
From the bottom of that hole, the Hoyts sought the advice
of the minister who had married them. "He gave us another
choice," Dick remembers. "He said we could keep
Rick, love him, take one day at a time, and see where it led.
Who knows what will happen?" The Hoyts were young, headstrong,
uninformed, and determined. "We were just kids,"
Dick said. "We had never heard of cerebral palsy or a
person being called a vegetable." They were not sure
what they would do, only of what they would not do.
They decided to keep Rick at home and bring him up as well
as they could. The Hoyts began a process that changed their
lives forever and sent them down paths they never expected
to tread. From a crushing blow evolved a life that would make
the Hoyts a unique family and Rick a singular young man. So
what, then, was a little rain on Father's Day?
Welcome to the world
The gun sounded at the Medford Triathlon, and Dick began his
unorthodox crawl, breathing to the left on every stroke, more
of a thrash than a stroke. Rob Hoyt, the second son, a fine
high school swimmer, shook his head. He had tried to give
Dick some pointers but had given up, saying, "If you
cut him off at the waist, he'd go just as fast." Pulling
the boat, though, was good fun to Dick Hoyt.
Judy, through sessions at Children's Hospital, had learned
how to perform Rick's daily therapy, such as rubbing his muscles
to maintain their flexibility and putting on leg casts each
night to promote proper growth. Then she had set about exposing
Rick to the world of sensory perception. Using all sorts of
techniques, such as banging on pots and pans, playing music,
and rubbing various items on his skin, she slowly educated
Rick about sound and touch. "I tried to bring the world
to Rick," she said. Next, by using sandpaper letters
glued to blocks, she taught him the alphabet.
When Rob in 1964 and then Russ in 1967 were born, the whole
family became involved. Rick's younger brothers played with
him and took part in his care. To them their life seemed natural
-- so natural, in fact, that Rob once said, "We would
look at other families and think, 'So you don't have a wheelchair
in your house?' That seemed weird to us."
The hope machine
Every roadblock became a new challenge for the Hoyts and made
them more resourceful and determined. The more the Hoyts were
told they could not do something, the more they set their
shoulders to the wheel. No room in the public school system?
Rick can't communicate? We'll see about that. Through serendipity
they became involved with Tufts University's innovative engineering
department chairman Dr. William Crochetiere and a young graduate
student named Rick Foulds. Three years of research and development
led to the invention of the TIC, the Tufts Interactive Communicator,
which sequenced letters in rows on a panel. By using a headswitch,
Rick could select the bank of letters he wanted, and then
finally the very letter he meant. The Hoyts called it the
No funds for the project? The Hoyts and their neighbors in
North Reading, Mass., raised $5,000 to continue the research.
Kids ran a carnival that netted $40, mothers devised a progressive
cake sale that earned $300, a church sponsored a crafts fair,
and the Hoyts put on a dinner dance in the winter of 1972,
the theme of which was "Hope." By late winter of
1972, Foulds brought the TIC to the Hoyts' home for its trial
run. A 10-year-old was about to speak for the first time.
Everyone peered forward, trying to guess what Rick's first
words would be. "Hi mom, hi dad, I love you"? "Thank
you"? Foulds switched on the TIC, and the rows of letters
lit up. Rick began. Tap, tap, with the side of his head. "g-o."
Lips formed the letters as people guessed. Go? Got? Gosh?
Good? Tap, tap. Tap. "b-r-u" bruised? got bruised?
The light beam flashed over the letters. Rick concentrated
and hit the switch. Tap. Tap. Tap. "i-n-s." "Gobruins?"
someone said aloud. There was a pause. "Go, Bruins!"
someone else exclaimed. Rick nodded and smiled. Such was his
first statement to the world.
The message showed any number of things about Rick, including
his sense of humor. He could follow and understand and cheer
for the Boston Bruins, who were in the Stanley Cup finals.
He had a flair for the unusual. Judy saw the moment in a larger
context. "It marked a time for people outside of the
family to realize that Rick was intelligent and that I was
not just some crazy mother saying, 'My son is bright.'"
Testing the system
While Dick pulled Rick through the swim course on Spot Pond,
Judy, Russ, and Rob rigged a special chair -- a creation of
several orthopedic specialists and engineers -- to the back
of Dick's bike. Dick would tow the chair 40 miles, then disengage
it and pop a front wheel on, and push Rick over the last stretch.
At least, that was the theory. The bike system was untested
since the Hoyts had only received the finished product the
day before the triathlon. That did not faze them. They had
been testing new systems all their lives.
Russ, for instance, had invented a system for communicating
with Rick. Irritated at the slowness of the TIC (two to five
words per minute), Russ had made up "the Spell Method."
As Russ later put it, "I was 10 and just learning to
string sentences together, so I kept it simple." He took
the principle of the TIC and broke the alphabet down into
five sections, each beginning with a vowel: A, E, I, O, and
U. In a version of "Twenty Questions," he would
identify the proper area and then go through the letters swiftly
until Rick nodded. He could do what the computer could not,
guess whole words and whole stories. The Spell Method proved
faster and more pleasing than the TIC and became the standard
tool for both family and personal care assistants (PCAs) to
use with Rick.
Judy finally won the long battle to mainstream Rick in the
public school system. Because of his ability to communicate
and a new Special Education Law, Chapter 766 (which Judy had
helped draft and push into legislation), Rick entered public
school in 1975. Judy quickly moved on to new territory. The
next year, through the recently formed Association for Human
Services (ASHS) in Westfield, Mass., she set up Kamp for Kids,
a summer program that integrated disabled and able-bodied
children in all sorts of activities. Soon after Judy became
the head of ASHS, she enrolled in a graduate program at the
University of Massachusetts, and by 1981 had a degree in development
of children with special needs.
A career begins
Dick, meanwhile, in helping Rick, had also undergone dramatic
and unexpected changes. When Rick had asked to participate
in a five-mile race in 1977 in Westfield, to benefit an athlete
paralyzed in an accident, Dick had agreed. A part-time athlete,
Dick pushed Rick in the cumbersome wheelchair over the entire
course. Motorists stopped to look. "They saw all these
runners," Dick said, "and then some guy pushing
a boy in a wheelchair." They finished next to last, but
the payoff was what Rick typed out that night: "Dad,
when you pushed me in the race, I felt like I wasn't handicapped."
So began the running leg of the Hoyts' career in endurance
athletics. Within two years they had a custom running chair
and were entering races many weekends. The response was mixed.
No one knew what to make of them. "They wouldn't look
at us, they wouldn't talk to us. Maybe they thought they were
going to get a disease," Dick said of the reaction to
this unusual pair. Judy felt the sting more sharply. "It
was as if Rick were being refused his right to participate
in something because he did it with his dad pushing him and
did it differently from other people."
The Hoyts continued to do it differently, though, the only
way they knew how. Distances increased until, in 1981, they
ran the Boston Marathon. Though entered unofficially, they
ran the course in 3:11, a time that put them in the top 25
percent of the field. Denied a number the next year, they
ran again, only faster. In November 1982, they qualified officially
with a time of 2:45 at the Marine Corps Marathon. They have
done Boston ever since as registered runners, and the crowds
look for them now and cheer heartily.
By the time Dick carried Rick from Spot Pond over the 200
yards of sand to the waiting bike rig, Rick had become the
first nonverbal quadriplegic to graduate from an American
high school and was enrolled at Boston University in a degree
program that would take 10 years to complete. ("Fifteen
if I want a Ph.D.," Rick had quipped.) Judy had conquered
the Department of Public Welfare to gain for Rick the funds
necessary for PCAs. Dick had become a superb athlete, one
who had learned how to bike and swim in a year. And now they
were off, careening down the roads in Medford, bike chair
swerving wide on turns, grinding out their first triathlon.
The bike system proved unwieldy and even dangerous. Rick swerved
wide on turns as Dick labored to keep on course. It took hours.
But Rick loved the danger and Dick the exertion in competition.
Both were smiling when Dick finally dismounted and changed
shoes. The family attended to Rick, giving him water, sunblock,
and a quick massage, and then they popped the front wheel
on the chair. During the run, as Dick's body adjusted to the
new exercise, the old rhythm kicked in and he felt stronger
the farther they went. Soon they were even passing a few contestants.
They finished the run in 1:05, a 6:30 pace, a challenging
pace even without pushing a 105-pound payload. The Hoyts ended
up 271st out of 273, proud not to be last.
A unique Father's Day
The ebullient Hoyt family gathered at the finish line. They
had celebrated Father's Day in an unusual manner, but aberration
was the norm for them. Their involvement in the race went
far beyond Spot Pond and Medford, far beyond the 51 miles
covered. The road that led them there had so many twists and
curves that the race itself was a mere reflection of the larger
event they had been in for 23 years. They never would have
been there at all if Dick and Judy had not committed themselves
to the rearing of a severely disabled child.
But for Rick's handicap, they might have been attending a
more traditional Father's Day gathering, like a barbeque.
Dick would have been paunchy and short of wind. "If it
weren't for Rick," Dick said once, "I'd probably
weigh 350 pounds and be in some barroom by now." Who
knows what career Judy might have undertaken? It would not
have been a life of dedication to human services and special
needs. Ironically, Rick's disability had given or revealed
to all the Hoyts new and unforeseen abilities.
The finish line for the Hoyts was usually just the beginning
of another race, and so it was with triathlons. Within a year,
Rick and Dick were training for the Ironman Triathlon. That
seems unbelievable, but not really. It was part of the extraordinary
progress of the Hoyts and another experience in the full and
active life of Rick Hoyt.
Geoff Marchant teaches English at The Hotchkiss School
in Lakeville, Conn. He is currently working on a book about
the Hoyts and is open to inquiries from publishers. He also
finished several minutes behind the Hoyts at the 100th Boston
Permission granted to redistribute, as long
as you acknowledge the author, FootNotes and the Road Runners
Club of America.