Boston Marathon Icon Known For Pushing His Son’s Wheelchair Dies At 80
HOLLAND, Mass. — Dick Hoyt — one half of a father-son team immortalized with a statute near the starting line for the Boston Marathon for their efforts to inspire and include athletes with disabilities — has died. He was 80.
Hoyt passed away peacefully in his sleep Wednesday morning, one of his sons, Russ Hoyt, told the Associated Press. “He had an ongoing heart condition that he had been struggling with for years, and it just got the better of him,” Russ Hoyt said.
Russ and his other brother, Rob, broke the news to Rick Hoyt, their father’s running partner for more than three decades. “He’s sad, as we all are, but he’s OK,” Russ Hoyt said. “You could see it in him, it was like someone hit him.”
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The legacy of the father-son duo began in Westfield in 1977 after Rick Hoyt, who has spastic quadriplegia and cerebral palsy, told his father, then a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing at Barnes Regional Airport, he wanted to participate in a five-mile run to benefit a lacrosse player who had been paralyzed in an accident.
Most people thought they would run down to the end of the street and turn back because, at the time, Rick had what is called a Mulholland wheelchair with wheels akin to a shopping cart, recalled Russ Hoyt to The Republican. But they didn’t. They ran the entire five miles and came in second-to-last place. In fact, the duo never came in last place throughout their entire athletic careers.
“When Rick got home that night, he spelled out on his computer: ‘Dad, when I’m running, I feel like I’m not even handicapped.’ And just to be there for that and see that, and then see it evolve into what it became … it’s just amazing,” said Russ Hoyt. “The first time they ran the Boston Marathon, they weren’t given numbers, because they didn’t have a category. They weren’t runners, and they weren’t ‘wheelchair athletes,’ so they didn’t know what to do.”
In order to qualify for a number to run in the Boston Marathon, Dick, who was 40 years old at the time, had to qualify under Rick’s age, so they competed in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., recording a time of two hours and 41 minutes. For that particular race, a specialty wheelchair was made that Russ Hoyt likened to a jogger-style stroller fit to Rick’s frame.
Just a year ago, the father and son were inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame, an achievement that recognized their having completed 257 triathlons around the world, some in the Ironman category. Said the hall of fame organization in response to the death of the elder Hoyt, “The push-assist duo of Dick and Rick Hoyt has inspired athletes all over the world — showing us what’s truly possible with hard work, dedication and teamwork. Dick’s legacy will last forever through the lives he’s helped change and the barriers he’s helped break.
The team made history as the first duo to complete the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii in 1989. Using an inflatable boat attached to a bungee pulled by Dick, a bike with a seat on the handlebars for Rick, and a custom-made jogger for Rick to sit in, the Hoyts finished the grueling 140.6-mile triathlon in 14:26:04, changing the face of sporting events and redefining what is possible.
In all, the Hoyts chalked up more than 1,200 distance races, and the Team Hoyt foundation they formed delivered a message of “Yes, you can” to people with disabilities as well as to the community at large. The foundation’s Facebook page was flooded with tributes this week from moms, dads and para athletes from around the world. Wrote a father from Poland, Pawel Jach, “Thank you for inspiring me Dick.”
“I never imagined it would be like this,” Dick Hoyt told The Republican in 2018 as he reflected on the Team Hoyt story which kept him on the road as a motivational speaker. “It’s just amazing. It all started here (in Western Massachusetts) with us being Team Hoyt. Today we have Team Hoyt chapters all over New England, across the U.S. and in Canada. It’s amazing how big it’s getting.”
Across the region, those familiar with the Hoyts and their story spoke of the devotion of father and son to their message of positivity.
“Dick Hoyt was not only a friend, he was an inspiration to anyone who had the good fortune of meeting him, or to those who were aware of his remarkable life story,” said U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield. “As a fellow runner, I am proud to say they were welcome participants in the SIDS Road Race in Springfield for more than 20 years. It was a joy to see them run together because they truly were the personification of the word courage.”
“Dick personified what it means to be a Boston Marathoner, showing determination, passion and love every Patriots’ Day for more than three decades,” the Boston Athletic Association said in a statement of tribute. “He was not only a fan-favorite who inspired thousands, but also a loyal friend and father who took pride in spending quality time with his son Rick while running from Hopkinton to Boston. The pair’s bond and presence throughout the course became synonymous with the Boston Marathon. Team Hoyt’s 1,000th race together came at the 2009 Boston Marathon, and in 2015 Dick served as grand marshal of the race in recognition of his impact on the event and para athlete community.”
The state’s adjutant general, Major Gen. Gary Keefe, of Northampton, who had known the Hoyt family since he was a teenager, said, “When I think in terms of devotion, I think of Dick and Rick Hoyt and the love Dick Hoyt had for his son. He wanted his son to experience life as every other kid did.” Keefe recalled how he and his brothers would often interact with the Hoyt brothers, also including Rob and Russ, at family gatherings at the Air Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing where Keefe’s father served for decades.
Added a former commander of the 104th and past state commander of the Air Guard, retired Major Gen. Richard A. Platt, “Dick was a real trail blazer … When he and Rick first teamed up, nobody paid much attention to the challenges disabled people face. He and Rick changed that not only by spotlighting those challenges, but by providing real inspiration and hope to a lot of people. We all benefited from his foresight and determination.”
“The Hoyt story that grew to become a worldwide inspiration had truly humble beginnings in Westfield so many years ago. It was all about a dad and mom who carried deeply for their son and both working tirelessly to ensure Rick Hoyt had a rich and fulfilling life. Of all his roles, having known him for as long as I did, I think Dick would say ‘father’ was his most important,” said Cynthia G. Simison, executive editor for The Republican. “Dick, along with Rick’s late mother, Judy, did yeoman’s work to ensure the message of inclusion and ‘Yes, you can’ was delivered loud and clear to young people of all abilities.”
Dick Hoyt had a more than 30-year career in the military before retirement in 1995 allowed him to pursue the Team Hoyt effort full-time. One of his fellow retired officers, Lt. Col. William G. Sheehan, of Wilbraham, recalled having first met Hoyt in the 1970s on a deployment to Mississippi and learning about Rick’s disabilities. The two became great friends and more recently were among a group of 104th retirees, the “Not Over the Hill Yet Gang,” who met quarterly, including a summer visit at Hoyt’s lakefront home in Holland. “Over the years, he always kept me up-to-date on Rick,” Sheehan said. “I will always think highly of Dick for his dedication to his son and this burden he carried so well.”
Fellow USA Triathlon Hall of Fame member and longtime Boston Marathon race director Dave McGillvray recalled how he first met the Hoyts at the Falmouth Road Race. “I looked upon them with bewilderment. What is this? Someone is actually pushing another person in a wheelchair? I’d never seen that before,” McGillvray said. “I waited for them at the finish line as I just had to find out who they were and what this was all about. That began a 40-year relationship and friendship between us.”
McGillvray said he believes Team Hoyt changed the world with their athletic career, noting the presence of team chapters around the globe.
Robert and Henriëtte Brethouwer, together with their son Noah, traveled 3,000 miles from Aalten, a small village in the Netherlands, to Massachusetts eight years ago to run in the Holland Elementary School’s annual run-walk road race alongside Team Hoyt. Noah has a syndrome called Caudal Regression Syndrome, was born blind, deaf and could not speak as well as being paralyzed from the waist down.
“When Noah was born the doctors didn’t believe that he should live a good and long life. After months of struggle we turned on our TV. Right in our darkest moment, we saw Dick running with Rick. That image we never forget,” said Henriëtte Brethouwer. “(It was a) promise for a bright and wonderful future. We were comforted by seeing those two men. After that we never doubted about Noah’s future.”
The Holland 5K continues to thrive and a racing team has been started at the elementary school. Bettina Schmidt, chair of the Holland Select Board, said many students have even joined in to push other students in the annual race. “(Dick Hoyt’s) been an inspiration to everyone that you can overcome anything. He will be greatly missed,” said Schmidt.
The Hoyts were presented with the ESPYs “Jimmy V Award for Perseverance” in 2013. “Even when so many people told us we did not belong, we are here,” Rick Hoyt told the audience at that event. “We are even more thrilled because the motto of Team Hoyt which has inspired thousands of people around the world to better themselves through athletics and to not tolerate people with disabilities being denied the opportunity to participate in life is, ‘Yes, you can.'”
John Young, a 55-year-old teacher from Salem, said he found inspiration through Team Hoyt’s message. Born with achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism, Young said he was told that he couldn’t and he was “too small,” but after learning about the father-son team, he decided he was going to.
“I cannot count the number of races I’ve been able to race with Team Hoyt, including but not limited to the Boston Marathon, every year since 2013,” said Young, “all because of those three words spoken by Dick and Rick: ‘Yes You Can!’ Dick and Rick have inspired countless people to test and surpass their own limits.”
Bill Rodgers, an Olympian known for his triumph three consecutive years in a row at the Boston Marathon, knew Dick Hoyt as both an athlete and a friend. “To push Rick over the Boston hills, 26 miles in all kinds of weather that Boston gets, that’s off the charts,” said Rodgers. “It sounds trite to say, but he will be missed because he was such a big part of Boston and the marathon. It won’t be the same. You can call him a true champion.”
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