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The Wheels Of Life
Gary Smith
April 18, 2011
Over the past 33 years, Dick Hoyt has pushed, pulled and carried his disabled son, Rick, through more than 1,000 road races and triathlons, including 28 Boston Marathons. But as time bears down on them, how much longer can they keep it up?
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April 18, 2011

The Wheels Of Life

Over the past 33 years, Dick Hoyt has pushed, pulled and carried his disabled son, Rick, through more than 1,000 road races and triathlons, including 28 Boston Marathons. But as time bears down on them, how much longer can they keep it up?

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But hell, what could Dick expect? Even his own wife, the fiercest warrior for the disabled who'd ever walked the earth, didn't get it. He pivots in the church parking lot near the starting line, looking for the person who's holding the van keys, his mind circling the unthinkable: Give up.

Rick blinks, infinite patience. Dick's eyes come to rest on the back of his son's head. Sometimes it still washes over him, the sadness over what Rick could've been. The old grief that first shuddered through Dick the day when he and his wife finally stopped pretending away the truth, when he finally had to accept that his baby boy—perfect for nine months until the last moments of delivery, when he'd inexplicably turned facedown and the cord had coiled around his windpipe—was not doing push-ups when he lay on his stomach and throbbed in spasms. The day Dick and Judy sobbed the whole way home from the specialist who'd told them their eight-month-old son was hopeless, pack him off.

They'd show that doctor and everyone else, they vowed. They'd keep Rick at home, they'd will him against the tide and into the mainstream. Yes, that would take money, so off hustled 22-year-old Dick at dawn to his military base and at dusk to his moonlight masonry job. Yes, that would take a miracle of a 21-year-old mother ... so wait, where was Judy? Peeking out her back window to see if it were safe to slip out and hang laundry without neighbors asking about her strange baby. Freezing when the doorbell rang, too ashamed to answer it and join the other new mothers on the block taking their babies for walks. Holed up in her closet, screaming out her anger that she—the class secretary and captain of North Reading High's cheerleaders, who'd wooed and won the captain of the football and baseball teams—had been handed a child that would never lift a finger for himself.

All that anger and fear had to be sent somewhere else, before it devoured her. How about out there? How about turning it on all the public schools and summer camps that still barred disabled children in the 1970s, all the builders of rampless buildings, all the politicians who rhapsodized about equal opportunity for people of all races, colors and creeds but stammered and fell silent about the handicapped? She began joining advocacy groups, haunting legislative sessions, pounding tables at policy meetings, haranguing congressmen, determined that Rick wouldn't sit in a corner staring into space in schools for the disabled such as his first one. Her children cringed when she ranted, but Massachusetts buckled in 1972 and became the first state to mandate that public schools admit disabled children, a civil right that soon became federal law.

Which meant Rick had damn better be ready to prove Judy right the day he entered public school, a 13-year-old sixth-grade Jackie Robinson on wheels. And so his first 12 years of life, whenever Judy wasn't storming the ramparts, she was prepping Rick. Scissoring letters and numbers out of sandpaper and running his fingers over them, holding fur against his hands and repeating soft, festooning the house with words identifying every item. "Do you have to bring him?" customers at nearby tables would gripe when Judy wrapped a bib on him and fed him at restaurants. "Yes," she would growl, "we do." Hiking, Dick ferried him in a fireman's carry to the tops of mountains; cross-country skiing, he laid him on a sled and pulled him with a rope; fishing, he knotted the line around Rick's finger.

"I wish I was Rick," his brother Rob blurted one day when he was six. But that sort of focus, in the few hours when Dick was home, made Rick feel more like his father's project than his son ... until Rick's eureka made them partners for life.

Just a few months into their new obsession, Dick noticed something odd. He actually ran faster, felt stronger, in the third race of their three-race weekends. Maybe Team Hoyt should take on the granddaddy of road races: the Boston Marathon. His application was rejected by the Boston Athletic Association on grounds that the Hoyts fit in neither the wheelchair nor the able-bodied runners' divisions. They could only run unofficially, as bandits.

They lined up without numbers that chilly April day in 1981, Dick tensing in expectation of getting the last-minute hook. His exhilaration, when they weren't, swept him through the first 20 miles, along with the adulation of the love-at-first-sight crowd. "The adrenaline rush," Rick would write later, "was unbelievable." Then the truth registered in Dick's body. His legs cramped, his torso froze, his chest and arms ached, his stomach turned with nausea. He looked down, at mile 22, horrified to see his legs walking. Spectators and runners, fearful that the whole human race was about to lose, kept shouting, "You're almost there, you can do it!" The noise became thunder by mile 24, and Dick found himself surging again, flying to the finish line as Rick's adrenaline wave nearly capsized them.

It hit Dick just as hard as the wall had: I run and push farther. He is more.

Surely their 3:18 marathon would open the BAA's arms for the following year's race. Nope. Sorry. Bandits once more. "Maybe we should wear masks," muttered Dick.

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