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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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Rick would end up distraught. Because Mom always pushed me to be independent, he'd type, and she was not seeing the big picture, which was that I asked Dad to compete. He'd move into an apartment full of racing medals and photos, living on his own with the help of aides: If I can't live independently, then I want to die.

Dick would end up near bankruptcy just as he was retiring from the National Guard as a lieutenant colonel, having to take out a $60,000 loan to compensate Judy for half the value of their home, along with relinquishing half of his pension, as part of their 1995 divorce. Judy would end up battling manic depression, seeing Rick a half-dozen times a year and working on a goat farm selling goat cheese and goat soap. And the Trek Across America would end up raising $2,000, not the $1 million Dick had envisioned.

The day after they got home, Dick took Rick to compete in an Olympic-distance triathlon in Vermont.

So now it's Kathy Boyer, Dick's girlfriend and office manager for the last eight years, coming on the double with the keys to the van in response to the page from the P.A. announcer in Worcester. And now Dick's a one-man pit crew, bent over the broken tire with pliers, air pump and duct tape as a siren screams to alert everyone that the leader of the race is within a mile of the finish.

Judy's dead. She took her last breath six days before this pothole-riddled race, summoning Dick only hours before the ovarian cancer finished her at 69, rallying just long enough to hug him and ask forgiveness and confess, "I'm stubborn," to one of the most stubborn human beings ever to walk, or run, or bike, or swim this earth.

He fixes the tire, pushes Rick back onto the street. The crowd, seeing them approach the finish line, bursts into applause: Either the old man and the quadriplegic are somehow about to win the damn race ... or they just pulled off the most brilliant ruse since Rosie Ruiz in the 1980 Boston Marathon. But no, they cross the finish line and keep rolling, It'saGoodLife!It'saGoodLife!It'saGoodLife! and it dawns on everyone: The Hoyts—16 minutes into the race, more than a mile behind whoever's in last place—are starting all over again.

Now they're the iconic image seen on billboards across the country—the father pushing his son headlong into the impossible, with the one-word caption below: DEVOTION. The pair that carried the Olympic torch through adoring mobs in Boston and was inducted in 2008 into the Ironman Hall of Fame in Hawaii, where Rick hit the stage squealing and flapping, the Ironman insignia shaved into the side of his head, and concluded his acceptance speech—through the voice synthesizer connected to his computer—by declaring, "A vegetable is in the Hall of Fame ... and my name is Rick, not Ricky." The duo that went global on YouTube in 2006, a five-minute clip of them on the run set to music that loosed a storm of emotion and landed, via a link, in the electronic mailbox of a 53-year-old Michigan executive in the throes of an existential crisis, a triathlete named Ron Robb who'd convinced himself that his recent heart problems meant that his life, for all intents and purposes, was over, and who'd just come home from a walk on a hot July night during which he'd begged God for direction, when he saw that YouTube clip and wept over his keyboard, and decided this was it, God's answer and plan for him: to find pushers for all the disabled people who didn't have a Dick Hoyt, so that they, too, could take a ride on Rick Hoyt's adrenaline wave.

And so, three years later, there are chapters of My Team Triumph in 10 states, hundreds of "angels" pushing hundreds of "captains" through scores of road races, hundreds of families crying at the sight of their disabled children or siblings pumping their fists and producing beautiful noises from some buried hollow, finally tapped. Not to mention Athletes Serving Athletes in Baltimore and Team Myles in Ohio and the Team Hoyt chapter in Virginia Beach, legions inspired to do like Dick and Rick.

And there are families with disabled children flying to Boston to see the Hoyts run, and 300-pound electricians who show up for work at Dick's house and turn into marathoners after seeing pictures of the Hoyts racing on the walls, and maimed war vets who've been told they'll never walk again running triathlons because of the Hoyts, and 200 e-mails a day arriving from people with all sorts of afflictions and addictions telling similar tales of salvation, of their self-pity and alibis spontaneously stripped away by the Hoyts, filling Dick's eyes with tears as he reads them. And coaches of college football teams and Swiss soccer teams showing DVDs of Team Hoyt to their teams to inspire them for big games, and corporations paying 20 grand to have Dick deliver his unpolished but heartfelt speech and lift their employees to their feet to roar Team Hoyt's motto, Yes you can! And Team Hoyt fund-raisers that have collected hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase communications devices and running chairs for the disabled, to train dogs for the blind and create therapeutic horseback-riding programs and summer camps.

They've become like Lourdes to people with handicapped family members, says Jackie Shakar, Dick's physical therapist.

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