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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 Hope Machine.

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 Marathon.

Permission granted to redistribute, as long as you acknowledge the author, FootNotes and the Road Runners Club of America.

 

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