David Hirsch talks to special father Dick Hoyt. Dick and his son Rick, a non-verbal spastic quadriplegic with cerebral palsy, have competed in over 1200 races including 34 Boston Marathons and Six Iron Man Triathalons. Hear their amazing story on this Special Fathers’ Network Podcast.
Tom Couch: This is the Special Fathers Network podcast. The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for fathers to support fathers.
Sometimes the mentor father is just there to answer a few questions. Sometimes they become good friends. It’s a proven support system for new fathers with special needs kids. If you’re a father looking for support, or if you’re a dad who’d like to offer support, go to 21stcenturydads.org.
David Hirsch: Hi, I’m David Hirsch and this is a Special Fathers Network Podcast, stories of fathers helping fathers. I’m thrilled to bring you our guest today, the legendary Dick Hoyt.
Dick Hoyt: Rick is the athlete, and I’m just out there loaning him my arms and my legs.
David Hirsch: Dick’s oldest son Rick was born as a spastic quadriplegic with cerebral palsy, unable to walk or talk. In 1977, with the help of the special computer device, Rick told his dad he wanted to participate in a five mile benefit run for a young paralyzed lacrosse player. Dick, who was not a runner, pushed Rick in his wheelchair the entire five miles, coming in next to last. That night Rick, using his computer, said, “Dad, when I’m out running, it feels like my disability disappears, which was very powerful.”
David Hirsch: That was just the beginning. Since then, they’ve done over 1200 races, including 32 Boston Marathons and six Iron Man Triathlons all around the world.
Dick Hoyt: Our message is yes, you can. You can do anything you want to do. As long as you make up your mind, you can do it.
David Hirsch: Dick and Rick had been an inspiration to people all across the country and around the world. And Dick is here with us today to tell his story on the Special Fathers Network Podcast.
Dick Hoyt: It was Rick that got us into running. I wouldn’t be running today if Rick didn’t ask me to.
Tom Couch: So here now is David Hirsch’s conversation with special father Dick Hoyt.
David Hirsch: I’m here today in Holland, Massachusetts, talking with the legendary Dick Hoyt, who along with his son Ricky, who is 56, make up Team Hoyt. Dick, I’ve been an admirer of yours for years. I think of you as a poster child for the word commitment. Thank you for taking the time to do a podcast interview for the Special Fathers Network.
Dick Hoyt: My pleasure.
David Hirsch: You and your late wife Judy had three boys, Russell, Robert, and Ricky, the oldest of the three boys, who was diagnosed at birth as a spastic quadriplegic with cerebral palsy. Let’s start with some background. Where did you grow up?
Dick Hoyt: I grew up in a little town north of Boston called North Reading. And actually it was so small my graduating class only had 45 people.
David Hirsch: And where were you in the class?
Dick Hoyt: Me? I was probably about the middle.
David Hirsch: So a small town.
Dick Hoyt: Very small town. And matter of fact, I played football, basketball, baseball, because they only had three sports. But I was captain of the football team. I just had so much fun with it, but it was very difficult, because you had to play both ways on football. You’ve had to be on offense and defense.
David Hirsch: So you grew up in a small town, but in a big family.
Dick Hoyt: Yeah. There were five boys, five girls, and we never fought with each other. We were known as the cleanest, healthiest family going through school.
David Hirsch: How would you describe your relationship with your dad, when you were young, and then as you became an adult, when you’re both adults?
Dick Hoyt: Of all ten of us, I think I spent more time and had more fun with my dad, and my mother, because my father wanted me to be a boxer. And my mother says, “No. You’d be a boxer, and you’d break your nose.” So instead I played football and broke my nose five times.
David Hirsch: It’s too funny.
Dick Hoyt: Yeah. It’s true though. Now, having ten children, and he had a job, and for my mother to be home with the ten children, and he spent as much time as possible to be with the ten children and do as many things as possible with all of us, like on weekends and stuff. And he’d make sure that he’d do something with all of us. You couldn’t have a better mother and father.
David Hirsch: Well, that’s very interesting, that he wanted you to box. Your mom says no, and then you break your nose five times while you’re playing football. That’s very funny. So where did you go to school?
Dick Hoyt: Went to school in North Reading.
David Hirsch: Okay. And then from high school, where did you go from there?
Dick Hoyt: I didn’t go to college. I was very upset when I graduated from high school, and I was scared because I didn’t prepare myself for college. And so I ended up going into the military, and then ended up spending 35 years in the military.
When I went in, I started out as an enlisted person. I was the fitness control officer: no smoking officer, weight control officer. So they hated me, you know?
David Hirsch: And you’re trying to break people their bad habits. That’s remarkable. And that was a long career. So you went straight from high school into the military, and then retired when you were around 55, from what I remember.
Dick Hoyt: Yep.
David Hirsch: Okay. So let’s talk about your personal connection to the special needs community. To begin, what was your first reaction upon learning about Ricky’s diagnosis when he was born?
Dick Hoyt: Well, what happened was I took Judy in at like 4:30 in the morning, because she was ready. And so when I got into the hospital and the doctor who was there says, “She’s not gonna see the baby for quite a while.” He said, “I suggest you go to work, and we’ll give you a call.” So I got a call. They told me that she had the baby and all that, but they had problems. And so when I got in the hospital, he was laying on his stomach, and I thought he was doing push-ups. I said, “You gotta be kidding me. He’s just born, he’s doing push-ups.” But he was having spasms.
David Hirsch: Oh, like a seizure.
Dick Hoyt: Spasms. And so then our family doctor explained what’s going on, because he had somebody in his family that ended up having cerebral palsy. They ended up, not this doctor, but they said, “Forget Rick. Put him away, put him in an institution. He’s going to be nothing but a vegetable for the rest of his life.” And I said, “No, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to bring him up like any child.”
David Hirsch: He’s your first child, so you didn’t have any other experience being parents. So the advice of the medical community, just to be clear, was that he’ll be better off in an institution. “We know more about these things than you might know.” That’s the advice at the time.
Dick Hoyt: Yeah. But we said no. Wouldn’t do it. And the other thing, most of these children like that, they put them in special rooms, in special schools, and stuff like that. We didn’t want that. We wanted him to be in the public schools, just like all the other kids. But he couldn’t talk or walk or do anything like that. But we ended up getting him in the regular schools. And what was amazing too, was where he couldn’t talk when he was 12 years old—that’s when we were trying to get him in school.
And my youngest son Russell was only eight. And so they started fooling around with the alphabet. And that’s how they started spelling and stuff like that. You know, A E I O U. Because Rick knew the alphabet, and he’d shake his head yes or no. And that’s amazing. And that’s in some of the books we’ve written.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, let’s go back just a little bit, Dick. The advice to begin with was you should institutionalize him. You and Judy decide, “Nope, that’s not what we’re going to do. We’re going to try to mainstream him.” Were you getting some advice or encouragement from some people, doctors or others, that that would be the right thing to do, or that you could do this?
Dick Hoyt: Yes. We went to the children’s hospital in Boston, and we met some doctors from there. We were talking with them, and they were giving us some good advice. And matter of fact, we had neighbors that used to come in, because they wanted him to get some exercises and stretching and stuff like that. So we’d had like four or five people from the neighborhood who would come in, and they’d stretch his legs and his arms and stuff like that. Amazing.
David Hirsch: Well, that’s really important early on. Right now, they just say, “Oh, he’s not going to be the same.” But to make sure that he’s as engaged as he can possibly be. And that’s gonna lead to his physical development. And then you never really know at such a young age what somebody’s cognitive or intellectual ability is going to be.
Dick Hoyt: Right.
David Hirsch: So that’s fabulous. So against the advice of the doctors, you decided to not institutionalize Ricky. Talk about some of the other important decisions you and Judy made early on in Ricky’s development as a young person.
Dick Hoyt: We decided that we were going to bring Rick up just like any other child. So anything that other families were doing, our own families, how we were brought up, is how we brought up Rick. And it’s amazing. He can talk with a computer and all that. I mean, he’s graduated from high school. He’s graduated from Boston University. He’s got the Distinguished Graduate Award from Boston University.
David Hirsch: Who would have guessed really? I’m so thankful that you did not take the advice of the medical community at the time, and it’s living proof that anything’s possible. And it doesn’t always turn out that way, but if somebody is not given the opportunity, you’ll never know.
Dick Hoyt: You’ll never know. And that was one of the hardest days of my life, because we lived two hours away from Boston University. To drive in and drop him off with people we hardly knew as personal care attendants, that was tough. It took him nine years, but he did it. And to get the Distinguished Graduate Award.
David Hirsch: That’s truly remarkable. So what was it like balancing your 30-plus year career in the Air National Guard and raising three boys, with the challenges that Ricky provided to the family?
Dick Hoyt: Well, everybody knew that we had Rick, and that he had problems, but they all accepted him, because we did everything with him that we did with the other two. And the other two would take Rick, and they do things with him without the mother and father. Like they would take him outside, and they played baseball with him. And somebody would push him to the bases. They used to build huts up in trees, and they used to carry him up in these trees.
I’m telling you, it’s amazing. We’d go camping, because we’d love to camp as a family. And they had the swimming pools there. And so the place would be surrounded with people around a pool. We’d take Rick and throw him in the pool, and he’d look up and start laughing. Everybody’s freaking out around the pool. It’s amazing.
Cross country skiing. We take him cross country skiing, with a sled behind my back and I’d pull him. But we did everything with him. We played hockey, and he always wanted to be the goalie, but he wanted a sheet of plywood in front of the net.
David Hirsch: To help them out a little!
Dick Hoyt: To help them out a little bit. We’d take him to the beach, and they’d bury him in the sand, just like everybody else. So he was brought up just like everybody else.
David Hirsch: Well, I think that’s not the secret, but that’s part of why Rick developed as much as he has. You haven’t treated him delicately. Don’t touch him. You know? Gotta always look out for him. And you’re not being irresponsible, I’m sure, but you were just trying to say, “Hey, he’s a young guy and he’s wants to do all the same things that other young guys want to do with his brothers and with his classmates and things.” That’s fabulous.
Dick Hoyt: That’s one thing that people don’t believe is that we used to do a lot of camping. So there was this one weekend, we were up in New Hampshire, and I was carrying him up a mountain. I was ahead of Judy and the two boys. And I had to keep changing him, going up the mountain.
And there’s another family coming down the mountain. And he was drawn in a little bit in the back, you know? And so when this family got down to where Judy and Rob and Russ were, they said, “Did you see that man going up the mountain? His son is dead, and he’s going up there to sacrifice him.”
David Hirsch: Oh, my gosh!
Dick Hoyt: Yeah, that’s true.
David Hirsch: Wow. What was Judy’s response to that?
Dick Hoyt: Oh, she just laughed.
David Hirsch: Oh, that’s remarkable. Well, you can’t control what other people are going to say or do.
Dick Hoyt: No.
David Hirsch: That’s a really important thing. So what do you think the impact has been on the two other boys as a result of their older brother?
Dick Hoyt: Well, I think it was tougher on Rob, who was the second one, because he used to come up to me and say, “You spend all this time with Rick, and you don’t spend any time with me.”
David Hirsch: Wow. That must have really touched you.
Dick Hoyt: Yeah. So I used to take the kids like me to come go to the market or something like that. I used to take them. But then I used to take Rick too. But you know it took longer to take Rick, because we had to put him in a chair. And then when you get to the store, you got to pick him up and carry him and stuff like that. But though Rob did complain a bit, now he understands it.
And when Russell, the third one, came, it was a lot easier for Rob, because then he had somebody to play with and do all these different things. Russell was very good, and in fact, Russell is really good.
Judy started a camp for kids, with Rob and Russell. Actually I started it too, because we didn’t have any buildings, and so I bought a tent from the military, and that’s how it got set up. We had a big tent, and then I used to cook when they first get started. But we did everything as a family together.
David Hirsch: What are those camps known as? Do they go by a certain name or not?
Dick Hoyt: This one was called Camp for Kids. It was a camp for physically challenged kids and kids who were not physically challenged.
David Hirsch: Okay. So mixing them together.
Dick Hoyt: Mixing them together. And that worked out awesome.
David Hirsch: Well, it’s a two way street. The kids like Ricky are trying to keep up with their able-bodied friends. And then I think that there’s some sensitivity training going on with the typical kids, when they’re around those that have different challenges. How could you not be a better person as a result of that experience?
Dick Hoyt: That’s right.
David Hirsch: Yeah. That’s fabulous. So, we’re gonna roll the clock back to 1972. Rick is age 10, and I think I remember the story was that with $5,000 from Tufts University, you were able to get a computer.
Rick Hoyt: As you can see, I use my computer to speak for me. When I was born, the doctors told my parents to put me in an institution. I am lucky that my parents did not do that, or I might not have been able to be here today.
David Hirsch: And that was a big turning point. And then Ricky’s experience, because he’s been nonverbal, this was an opportunity for him to start communicating. Relate that story.
Dick Hoyt: Well, we wanted to get Rick into school, and the principal of the school said, “No, he can’t go, because he doesn’t understand everything that’s going on.” So we taught Rick the alphabet. We did the numbers with him, and we did a lot of reading. That’s why we tried again to get him in school. And they said no.
So we went and met some engineers from Tufts University in Boston, and we talked to them, and they said the same thing, that he wouldn’t be able to learn. So I said, “Well, tell Rick a joke.” So they told Rick a joke, and Rick cracked up. And they said, “Wow, maybe there’s something there.” So they said, “If you get us $5,000 ,we’ll be able to build a communicating device for Rick. Now you’ve got to remember, that was 47 years ago. $5,000 was a lot of money.
David Hirsch: Oh, no, no. I remember, because I would have been 12 years old at the time, and I remember my first job out of college. I worked for Price-Waterhouse. It was $15,500. That’s if you had a college degree and a CPA. So I realize that was a lot of money back in the early ‘70s.
Dick Hoyt: Yeah. So, they built the machine, and they’re coming to our house, and everybody’s betting on what the first words Rick is ever going to say, “Mom” or “Dad” or something.
And his mom says it will be “Mom.” I’m saying it’s going to be “Hi, Dad.” Well, the Boston Bruins were going for the Stanley Cup, and the very first words he ever said were “Go Bruins.”
David Hirsch: Fabulous. I love that story.
Dick Hoyt: Yeah, well, we were good friends now with the Bruins, especially Chara, the captain of the Bruins. Because what happened was Chara called me up, and he says, “I’d like to have you to be my personal trainer.” And I said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t have time for it.”
So he bikes to practices and bikes home, and he wanted to do triathlons. And I says, “I’m sorry, I just don’t have time to do it.” And at the time they were in the Stanley Cup. And they’re going up to Vancouver for I think it was the last game.
And so we got a DVD, it’s called, “I Can Only Imagine.” And when they get up there, they took that DVD, and they played that DVD, “I Can Only Imagine,” by Mercy Me.
David Hirsch: I’ve listened to that a hundred times.
Dick Hoyt: Yeah. And then they all stood out when that video ended, and then they all get up and said Rick’s verry first words, “Go Bruins.” So they called us up when they got home and they said, “We just want to let you guys know you guys are part of the reason why we won the Stanley Cup.”
So they invited us into Boston, in the Spaulding Hospital. So Rick and I went, but the Stanley Cup and the Spaulding Hospital and visited patients. And then that Tuesday night they took us out to the North End for dinner. And it was just unbelievable. Unreal. I just love hockey players. They’re rough and tough. But for professional athletes, I don’t think they come much better than hockey players.
David Hirsch: There’s something different going on there. All five of our kids skated, including two of our girls played hockey and not insignificantly. And with most sports, if you’re not one of the first team members, you’re going to be sitting on the bench. You might not even play very much. But with hockey, three shifts, everybody’s playing.
Dick Hoyt: Right.
David Hirsch: Not everybody gets the same amount of ice time, but everybody is involved. It’s very fast paced and there’s a different level of commitment there. So I agree with you.
So, Ricky starts communicating with the computer starting, at around age 10, and then he gets into the public school a couple or three years later, because now he’s able to communicate. Is that how it worked?
Dick Hoyt: He’s able to communicate.
David Hirsch: So what grade would he have been in at age 13, would you guess, or remember?
Dick Hoyt: Yeah, when he started his computer, he was in the high school out in Westfield, Massachusetts.
David Hirsch: Okay. So the Team Hoyt journey, has already begun. But formally it begins, from what I remember, around 1977 when Rick was 15. And he said he wanted to participate in a five mile benefit race for a young paralyzed lacrosse player.
And you were not a runner, and you guys finished nearly last, from what I remember of that very first race. But the most powerful thing for me was what he communicated to you after the race. What was that?
Dick Hoyt: He said, “Dad, when I’m out running, it feels like my disability disappears.” Which was very powerful. Now he’s a kid in a wheelchair. He can’t talk or use his arms or his legs, and now we’re out there running, and his disability disappears?
David Hirsch: I mean, it just brings tears to my eyes to think about that. So that was the turning point, wasn’t it?
Dick Hoyt: That was the turning point. That’s what started everything.
David Hirsch: So what was it that you did next, or what was the follow-up to that?
Dick Hoyt: Well, the problem with that was I was disabled afterwards. For two weeks I could hardly walk. So I told Rick, “Well, if we’re going to continue running, we’re going to have to get a chair built so I wouldn’t be hurting this badly.” So we went up to Crotched Mountain in Greenfield. We actually met an engineer up there, and we told him what we wanted for a chair. And he just got some old pipes and some old tubing and welded them together. And then we got an insert for Rick to sit in. And at the time we had a company that was working with us. And I told them, “You’ve got to build these chairs, because other people are gonna want them.”
Well, they just walked away. And at the time the only wheelchairs they had were the two wheel chairs the pros had. And they didn’t have any baby joggers at the time. And just think if we had patented a chair like that.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Coulda, woulda, shoulda. Sounds like a Forrest Gump type of situation.
Dick Hoyt: Yeah. So what we did, that’s what we call them, running chairs, and we took that chair over to what we call our first official race, which was over in Springfield, Massachusetts. And we get over there. There was 600 runners in it, and Rick and I finished 300th out of the 600, right in the middle.
So after that we used to go to a different town and a different city and run. And finally people started coming up to us and talking to us, and they could see that Rick had that personality, and a sense of humor, and he loved to be with people.
But when we first started, I used to get a lot of phone calls and letters from other families saying, “What are you doing dragging your disabled son to all these races? Are you just looking for glory for yourself?” And I said, “He’s the one that’s dragging me to all these races.”
David Hirsch: Well, it’s a team effort.
Dick Hoyt: Obviously. Oh, yeah.
David Hirsch: But, I imagine that that criticism might’ve stung when you first heard that, and you sort of questioned….
Dick Hoyt: When we first heard it, yeah.
David Hirsch: Well, it’s great that you…
Dick Hoyt: But we just don’t…we didn’t pay attention to anybody. We went out and did everything the way we wanted to do it.
David Hirsch: Be yourselves.
Dick Hoyt: Yeah.
David Hirsch: What a great lesson at an early age, not only for Rick, for yourself, but for other people.
Dick Hoyt: Yeah.
David Hirsch: So, from what I remember, it was about 1981, at Rick’s age 19, that you did your first marathon.
Dick Hoyt: That’s was the first Boston Marathon, yes.
David Hirsch: Did you train for that?
Dick Hoyt: Yes. Because we were doing races. But what happened was Rick and I sat down that fall, after we got the chair and all that, and we discussed that we wanted to run the Boston Marathon in 1981. And so I applied to the Boston Athletic Association, and they said, “No, you can’t run with us, because you’re different than anybody else.”
But the Boston Marathon has a wheelchair division. So we applied through them, but they also turned us down, saying, “No, you’re different than us. You can’t run with us.” See, they propelled the wheelchairs themselves, where I was pushing Rick. What they did say is, “If you want, you can line up behind us and run.”
And that was in 1981. So we’d lined up behind the wheelchairs, and we ran. And now, I don’t know if you’ve heard about marathon runners talking about hitting the wall. Well, I hit the wall at 22 miles, and I felt terrible. I didn’t think I was going to be able to finish it.
All the other runners were going by us, and they pounded me on my back and everything else. But we ended up finishing our first marathon in three hours and 18 minutes, and beat 85% of all the other runners.
David Hirsch: Well, your pedestal just got notched up a couple. I’ve done a handful of marathons. I have never come anywhere close to that time. So it’s remarkable. You might’ve hit the wall, but you kept going.
Dick Hoyt: It’s funny, because we got a picture of us crossing the finish line, and here Rick with the biggest smile you ever saw in your life. And it has me looking like I’m dead.
David Hirsch: So, you did the first marathon in 1981, and you’ve done hundreds of marathons, from what I remember.
Dick Hoyt: We’ve done over 1200 races.
Rick Hoyt: The Boston Marathon is the one event that I look forward to all year long, and it’s definitely my favorite race.
David Hirsch: So give me a couple of the highlights of some of the marathons that you’ve done here in the States, or beyond, for that matter?
Dick Hoyt: Yeah. Well, in 1982 we tried to do Boston again. So I talked to Will Coney, who was the executive director of the BAA, and asked him why we couldn’t be official entrants. And he said we didn’t have any qualifying criteria. And what he meant by that is you have to run a certain time depending on your age. So I had to run in Rick’s age, which meant I had to run under two hours and 50 minutes to run Boston with Rick.
So that fall we went down to Washington DC to the Marine Marathon. It’s just called the People’s Marathon. And right now they’re getting over 40,000 runners. And it’s so funny. Because when we get down there, he went out and bought himself a Marine outfit to wear in the Marine Marathon. And we ran that marathon in two hours and 45 minutes and 20 seconds.
And that qualified both Rick and me for the Boston Marathon. We took our official certificates, submitted them to the BAA, and we’ve been official entrants ever since. Matter of fact, in 1996, the hundredth running of the Boston Marathon, Rick and I were honored as Centennial heroes by the BAA and the sponsor John Hancock.
And when Rick was much younger, he was very much involved with the Easter Seals programs, where he’d go to the day camps, the swim camps, the overnight camps and stuff. So on the 25th running of the Boston Marathon, Rick and I dedicated it to Easter Seals, and we were able to raise over $370,000 and it all went to Easter Seals. And since we’ve been running, we’ve been able to raise over a million dollars for Easter Seals.
David Hirsch: That’s remarkable. Simply remarkable. So to qualify for the first Boston Marathon that you did, you had to have a time of less than 2:50, two hours and 50 minutes, and you made it by about five minutes, 2:45. Is that your fastest marathon time, or have you done better over the years?
Dick Hoyt: No. Let’s see. We ran a 2:40. That was for the Marine Corps. And we have been inducted into the hall of fame for the Marine Corps America.
David Hirsch: Okay. So, what was it that propelled you to start doing triathlons? You’d done a lot of running to begin with.
Dick Hoyt: Dave McGillivray, who is the director of the Boston Marathon now, he was into triathlons. He’s the one that brought triathlons to the East Coast. And Rick and I got in good with Dave, and we’re good friends with him. And we were down running the Falmouth Road Race, and Dave had just taken over the directorship. He looked at me and said, “Dick, you look like a good triathlete. You have to do triathlons.” Well, I looked at Dave and I said, “Only if I can do it with Rick.” He said, “Okay, Dick, why don’t you see what type of equipment that you can get built so you and Rick can compete together?”
At the time, I did not know how to swim, and I was in the process of changing houses. So I says, “Well, if we’re going to do triathlons, I don’t know how to swim. I’m going to buy a house on a lake. And this is the lake that I learned in.
David Hirsch: Now is this a lake or a river?
Dick Hoyt: That’s the lake.
David Hirsch: It looks really long. I didn’t know had an end.
Dick Hoyt: Yeah, so I bought the house on the lake. And I’ll never forget the first time I went and jumped in the lake. I sank. I couldn’t swim at all. So it took about a year before I could really get into swimming, although I did join the YMCA for a little bit so I could learn.
And then we ended up doing our first triathlon, and I’ll never forget it. And what I did, I put a vest around my chest and I tied a rope to the back of the vest and to the front of the boat. The boat is as a 10 foot Boston Whaler.
David Hirsch: Like a rubber raft.
Dick Hoyt: Yeah. And we had a beanbag chair made up that Rick lays in. And then we put a life preserver on him. And then I was out there and I was kicking like crazy, and Rick soaking wet.
David Hirsch: You’d probably have to have a longer tow rope so he doesn’t get as wet.
Dick Hoyt: So once we finish the swim, I have to pick Rick up and carry him to where the bike is.
David Hirsch: To the transition area.
Dick Hoyt: So what I had to do, I pick him up and I put him in the seat. But when we first started, we used to have a glass shield, like we used to put over the top of it to protect Rick from any debris.
David Hirsch: The bugs, rain, and things like that.
Dick Hoyt: And all that stuff. And when we applied to do the world’s championship, I’m entered in Kona, Hawaii, they said we couldn’t use that shield, because that shield gave us an advantage over all the other athletes.
David Hirsch: Like the little wind advantage or something?
Dick Hoyt: Yeah. I mean these are the best triathletes from all over the world.
David Hirsch: And you’ve got a big advantage. So let’s just go back a little bit, because I have a little triathlon experience myself. You did not start out with the Iron Man distance, did you?
Dick Hoyt: No, no. Well, actually the first one we did, we did a mile swim. We did a 25 mile bike and a 10 mile run. That was the first one we ever did.
David Hirsch: The Olympic distance.
Dick Hoyt: Yeah, the Olympic distance.
David Hirsch: Okay. And you did a number of those before you started ratcheting it up?
Dick Hoyt: Oh, geez, yeah. But to do the Iron Man, you’ve got to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and then run a full marathon.
A David Hirsch: Well, you’ve done six Iron Mans, from what I remember?
Dick Hoyt: Yeah.
David Hirsch: Where were they? What were locations were they?
Dick Hoyt: The first one was up in Canada. Germany and Japan. And then we’ve done, I think it was three Iron Mans in Hawaii.
David Hirsch: Which is the hardest?
Dick Hoyt: The one in Hawaii.
David Hirsch: Is it because it’s in the ocean as opposed to in a lake?
Dick Hoyt: Well, I think a lot of it has to do with the temperature out there, the heat. It is very, very hot out there. Then actually the bike is the toughest part for us. We made good time in the swim at the Iron Man. But the bike was tough. But we did make the bike, and then the run. We had a good run. And it was just amazing for us to be the first ones in the world to ever complete the Iron Man triathlon.
Now, how long has it been, and still we’re the only ones in the world that do it. Other people have tried it, but they can’t make the cut off times.
David Hirsch: Yeah. That’s remarkable. So, you’ve done 1,200 plus races. Have you ever not finished?
Dick Hoyt: I think we finished every one. There was one, a marathon, that I had a heart attack. Literally, I had a heart attack and I didn’t even know it.
David Hirsch: Oh my God.
Dick Hoyt: We were actually in first place up to the last mile, but I stopped to get a glass of water and this guy passed us. But there was a big hill there. I’ll never forget having a heart attack.
David Hirsch: So when did you realize that you had the heart attack? I mean, it was afterwards or…?
Dick Hoyt: It was afterwards. Yeah. I went to the doctor and they gave me an EKG, then I had to go and have three stents put in.
David Hirsch: Holy moly. How many years ago was that?
Dick Hoyt: Well, that goes way back.
David Hirsch: Were you in your fifties?
Dick Hoyt: Oh, yeah.
David Hirsch: Okay. That’s remarkable. So, you’ve done marathons, you’ve done Ironman triathlons, you’ve actually done a cross country ride as well.
Dick Hoyt: Yeah.
David Hirsch: What was that about?
Dick Hoyt: That started because Rick had cerebral palsy, and so we wanted to raise money for cerebral palsy, so we contacted cerebral palsy from Washington, and we talked to them. And they said, “You’re not gonna make any money from it.”
So we had to refinance our house. We had to get a hundred thousand dollars to give money. And we used to start the trek, like we’d be up at 5:30, 6:00 the latest, to start the trek. And what we did is at the end of the day, we’d mark the road. And then we went back to that to start it, but we wanted to start early enough so that we could quit at three or four o’clock, two o’clock, whenever we got the miles in that we wanted to get in that day. And it worked out very, very well.
David Hirsch: Yeah. So how many days and how many miles was that cross country ride?
Dick Hoyt: It was 3,770 miles, and I believe it was 45 or 47 days straight days. And that’s another thing. We’re talking to people, and they said that there’s no way in hell you can go out there and bike every day like that, and do it. And well, we did it. And we had ABC Sports with us for ten days, because they didn’t believe we’d make it up those mountains and through Colorado and all that.
David Hirsch: Well, that’s remarkable. I had a similar experience a three years ago when I rode from Santa Monica to Chicago. And most people thought, “Hey, you’re 54 years old, you’re not an athlete. You’re not an endurance bike rider for that matter. What gives you the right to think you can do this?”
And I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And I surrounded myself with people that had been very experienced at doing endurance bike riding. Lon Haldeman is the person that comes to mind that gave me the best advice.
And we set out on this 21 day journey to ride 2300 plus miles, 112 miles a day, every day for 21 days. And God willing, let’s not overlook the importance of surrounding yourself with others. And the advice I got early on was to use an RV, but only as a backup, but get a good night’s sleep.
And a couple of times we did have to mark the spot on the street and go back there the next morning to resume the ride, just so we could say that we rode every mile. That was really important.
Dick Hoyt: Side note, we stopped in Nevada someplace, and it was a gambling casino, and Rick had never gambled. And so just him and I went in so he could gamble. And we had been there for a little while. All of a sudden somebody came over and asked him for his ID. I says, “Oh, I’m sorry. We don’t have it with us.” “Well, you gotta leave.”
David Hirsch: How old would he have been at the time?
Dick Hoyt: It was 1992, so he would have been 30 years old.
David Hirsch: But it sounds like it was a journey. And every one of those days, the 40, 45 days, whatever it took, is different. What a memorable experience it was.
Dick Hoyt: That’s the beauty of the United States, biking across it, not driving. People don’t realize how beautiful this country is. And you see the horses and the cows running beside you, you’re going up the hills, and there’s rattlesnakes there. But it is such a beautiful country, to enjoy it like that, pedal by pedal, and not by car.
David Hirsch: Plus you’re doing something with one of your kids. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Dick Hoyt: Well actually, two of them were with me.
David Hirsch: So did you meet some people along the way? What type of reception did you get from time to time.
Dick Hoyt: We really got a great reception from everybody with that. We really did. It was awesome.
David Hirsch: I think you had mentioned that because of your military experience, there was something that was going on state to state too.
Dick Hoyt: Yeah. That was so awesome just to meet all the military people along the way, and what they did for Rick. In Nebraska, they made me a full colonel. Then Ohio found out about it, and they made him a general.
David Hirsch: That’s too funny. So is he a one-star or what is he?
Dick Hoyt: Just a one-star, yeah. He hasn’t gotten promoted since.
David Hirsch: Okay. Well, let’s talk about some of the more memorable races you’ve done. I know that you were planning on retiring back in 2013, and your plan, I think, was to do the Boston Marathon one more time in 2013.
Dick Hoyt: 2013 it was going to be my…well, because I had back problems, and I was really hurting, so I just said, “Well, I’ll do 2013.” And we were able to find a local dentist from Billerica, Massachusetts, and he volunteered to push Rick from then on in the Boston Marathon. And he’s done some triathlons and stuff. So it’s just awesome that Rick can continue on, you know. And he’s going to keep going until…he’s not going to stop.
David Hirsch: Wasn’t 2013 that sort of horrific year?
Dick Hoyt: That was the year of the bombing. And it was unbelievable. What happens is John Hancock is our sponsor, and we stay at the Sheraton hotel in Boston, our whole group. And there were like 25 people. And we get up at 5:00, 5:30, and we take our private bus, and they drive us out to Hopkinton. And this year, 2013, we had a bronze statue that was unveiled before the Boston Marathon.
David Hirsch: Oh my gosh.
Announcer: John Hancock is proud to be here with all of you at Center School to officially unveil a life-sized bronze statue in your honor.
Rick Hoyt: Thank you very much for presenting us with this sculpture. I want to thank all our friends in Hopkinton for helping with the placement of the sculpture in front of Center School. We are so grateful for this honor and for your friendship and support.
Dick Hoyt: It was unbelievable. The press was there. You could see the statue and the building, and there were so many people there, it was unbelievable.
But Rick and I, we started off ahead of runners, right behind the wheelchairs when we run. We got out about 20 miles out, and I noticed more police activity. So I went over to one of the policemen and I said, “Is there anything going on?” And he said, “Yeah, two bombs exploded.” For Rick and me, the marathon was all over, because our family was in those bleachers, and all our runners’ families were in the bleachers. But lucky for us, the bombs exploded right in front of them, but across the road.
David Hirsch: Wow.
Dick Hoyt: Yeah. So Rick and I had to keep running, so we kept running and we got to the 25 mile marker, and the police stopped us. “That’s it. The marathon is all over. Nobody can go any further.” So some people made it across the line, and some didn’t.
And at that time there were ten people, counting Rick and I together, running together, and five of them said they knew how to walk from there to the Sheraton hotel, because it was only like a mile away. And then I had a good Samaritan that came out of the crowd and he says, “Dick, I have a Jeep over there. If you want, I’ll drive you to the Sheraton hotel.” So he drove us to the Sheraton hotel. It took us an hour. That’s how bad things were.
David Hirsch: That must’ve been pandemonium.
Dick Hoyt: It was. Every place you’d go, people would stop us again. So we ended up getting to the hotel, and we went in. We waited until all the family and all around us come in. And fortunately for us, nobody was injured.
David Hirsch: That was a blessing, that none of your family members or friends were directly impacted by that.
Dick Hoyt: Exactly. And so I said, “Well, we had this problem, so I’m going to run 2014 again.” And we did run 2014 again, but we ran it as a group. All of our runners—there were about 25, I don’t know the exact number—but for the seven years prior to that, “Team Hoyt, you guys are the Boston Marathon.” They wouldn’t let us in. But then as a matter of fact, the board members of the marathon came up and said, “We want to thank you for what you’ve done for this marathon.”
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, you’ve revolutionized what people think about as a marathon. Most people just think it’s running a race. There’s obviously a wheelchair division. And you, just by sheer perseverance, force of personality, said, “Hey, we want to be a part of this too.” And you’ve created an opportunity for others behind you, Team Hoyt and beyond.
So let’s talk about Team Hoyt. What is that?
Dick Hoyt: Team Hoyt is a group of people. These are all volunteer people, and nobody makes any money from this. And what they do is they go out and raise money to buy chairs that they can put people in that cannot run or walk. And then they go out, and they either provide somebody to push the chairs for it, or the family can provide a runner pushing thet person that is physically challenged or anything like that. And it’s just amazing
David Hirsch: So it started here in Boston?
Dick Hoyt: It started here.
David Hirsch: So you started Team Hoyt, and now there are groups in Arizona, Canada, Coeur d’Alene, Northeast, South Dakota, Texas, Las Vegas, and Virginia Beach. So the idea is to raise the money to purchase chairs that would allow people to participate who wouldn’t otherwise be able to participate.
Dick Hoyt: We’ve got mothers pushing mothers.
David Hirsch: Really?
Dick Hoyt: Yeah. Well, you got mothers that are disabled, and they’re in wheelchairs. So it’s for everybody. It’s called inclusion, you know? That’s the big word for what we’re trying to do.
David Hirsch: Acceptance and inclusion, right? Well, that’s remarkable.
Dick Hoyt: But it’s amazing what these people are doing. It’s unbelievable.
David Hirsch: Well, you’ve started a little revolution of sorts, right? You’ve been the example and other people have said, “Oh, they can do it. Why not us?” And you’ve made a direct impact on those lives, and an indirect impact on the broader community, which is exemplary.
Dick Hoyt: We’ve really had a great life, and I’m just so proud of everything that we’ve been able to do, and we’re still doing it, you know? And I just can’t wait to see these Team Hoyts, especially when they start going overseas and stuff.
David Hirsch: So what are some of the most important takeaways that come to mind when you think about raising a child with a difference, or for that matter, advice you might give to dads who have a child with a physical or intellectual disability?
Dick Hoyt: I think the thing is the way that we brought up Rick, it’s like he doesn’t have anything, and we’ve found a way to do things with Rick. Most of the time it was our way. And they should be involved and get other families involved with your families too, to help out the fathers. I know that there are people that have problems with people who are physically challenged and stuff like that, and it’s too bad, because sometimes some people get hurt. It’s just too bad. You just gotta publicize it more and get more.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. So, Dick, why is it that you’ve agreed to be a mentor father as part of the Special Fathers Network?
Dick Hoyt: Because I feel that that’s very important. That’s something that everybody should do. When I see people doing things that are physically challenged with their kids and all of that, it just makes me so happy. It just makes me want to do more to help out.
It’s just like I was telling you earlier, I was just down to Atlantic City, and I saw all these fathers with their kids, and they’re all talking to each other, helping each other out, and everything else. As a matter of fact, at the end, I complimented them. I said, “This is awesome.” We need more of this going around the world, not just the United States, but around the world, for physically challenged people. It’s just unreal. I just have a big smile on my face every time I go, and we have a Team Hoyt road race, and we go to different races and stuff. Even with us helping Easter Seals, they have these children, and I can help them by making donations and all that, and raising money for them by running.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. So is there anything else that you wanted to add before we wrap up?
Dick Hoyt: Well, I want to thank you for coming, and you’re doing an outstanding job. This is unbelievable. Yeah.
David Hirsch: So if somebody wants to get involved with Team Hoyt or support the Team Hoyt Foundation, how would they go about doing that?
Dick Hoyt: The best thing to do is go to the website. It has everything in it.
David Hirsch: So that’s teamhoyt.com
Dick Hoyt: Teamhoyt.com.
David Hirsch: Outstanding. So Dick, thank you for taking the time and for the many insights. As a reminder, Dick is just one of the dads who’s agreed to be a mentor father, as part of the Special Fathers Network, a mentoring program for fathers raising a child with special needs. If you’d like to be a mentor father, or are seeking advice from a mentor father with a similar situation your own, please go to the 21st Century Dads website, which is 21stcenturydads.org.
Thanks again, Dick.
Dick Hoyt: My pleasure. Thank you.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for fathers to support fathers.
Sometimes the mentor father is just there to answer a few questions. Sometimes they become good friends. It’s a proven support system for new fathers with special needs kids. If you’re a father looking for support, or if you’re a dad who’d like to offer support, go to 21stcenturydads.org.
David Hirsch: And thank you for listening to the Special Fathers Network podcast, stories of fathers helping fathers.
Dick Hoyt: I am the body, Rick is the heart, and mobility is freedom.