Team Hoyt: Yes You Can

Team Hoyt: Yes You Can

Team Hoyt is the name given decades ago to a father and son team competing together in racing events, including marathons, triathlons and Iron Man events. Team Hoyt is Dick Hoyt, born June 1, 1940, and Rick Hoyt, born January 10, 1962, from Holland, Massachusetts. The two have been competing together for over 30 years, and have attracted world-wide attention not just for their often surprisingly good race results. Rick is a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy. During competitions Dick pushes his son Rick in a special wheelchair, when they run, he carries Rick on a special seat on the front of a bicycle during cycling events, and pulls Rick in a special inflatable boat during the swim events. Rick Hoyt was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth, after his umbilical cord became twisted around his neck blocking oxygen from his brain.

The doctors encouraged the Hoyts to institutionalize Rick, saying he would be nothing more than a "vegetable”. Dick and Judy Hoyt wouldn't accept the prognosis. They took Rick every week to Children’s Hospital in Boston, where a doctor encouraged them to treat Rick like any other child. Rick could neither speak nor control the movements of his limbs, but they saw Rick’s eyes following them around the room, which offered hope that he could learn to communicate. Dick, an Air National Guard officer, worked a second night job to help keep up with the financial needs; Judy worked tirelessly teaching little Rick. She cut out the letters of the alphabet in sandpaper for him to feel, telling him the names of each letter. She put little signs on everything in the house, telling Rick what the words were. Before long, it was apparent that Rick had learned the alphabet. As the years rolled on, Rick steadily progressed.

Although he had to be attended to for every need, his understanding of what was going on around him was obvious. When he was 11, the Hoyts got some help from bioengineers at Tufts University. For $5,000 and a lot of enthusiastic coaxing, they invented a computerized device that enabled Rick to communicate by tapping out individual letters on the screen using a little lever beside his head. As soon as Rick could spell out words on the screen and hear them spoken through a computerized voice, it was clear to all that Rick Hoyt was an intelligent young man with a normal, healthy mind, only inhabiting a body that was out of control. According to the Team Hoyt website, Rick surprised everyone with his first words on the machine. Instead of saying, "Hi, Mom," or "Hi, Dad," Rick’s first "spoken" words were: "Go, Bruins!" The Boston Bruins were in the Stanley Cup finals that season. They nicknamed the computer "the Hope Machine" because it opened the door to a future that they could only hope for until now.

The machine meant Rick could attend high school, and he eventually graduated from Boston University in 1993 with a degree in special education. He later worked at Boston College in a computer lab, helping to develop new systems to help disabled people communicate and accomplish simple tasks. Okay - so what about all this racing? It all started in 1977, when Rick was 15, and he saw a news item about a 5k run to support a local soccer player who was disabled due to an accident. Rick asked his dad to enter him in the race.

Of course, that meant that Dick, not Rick, was going to run this race, pushing Rick in his massive wheelchair - called "a tank on four shopping-cart wheels" by Sports Illustrated (SI)writer Gary Smith, who wrote a long, wonderfully thoughtful article last year on Team Hoyt. For Dick, who was horribly out of condition, the prospect of even walking 5k, never mind running while pushing Rick’s heavy chair, was a gruesome prospect. But it was for Rick, and Dick would do anything for his son. Gary Smith’s SI article describes that first race: "Dick’s two other sons, Rob and Russ, wisecracked that the Hoyts' race number, 00, summed up their chances of making it to the finish line. Most people figured Dick would shove the kid as far as the first corner and peel off. None had a clue what happened inside Dick Hoyt’s head when it bumped against a task. Time and distance vanished, even people disappeared.

The universe was emptied of everything except the task. ... They crossed the finish line next to last. The crowd whooped. Rob, Russ and Judy wrapped them in hugs, and they headed home: Rick straight to the Hope Machine to assess and Dad straight to the living-room floor to collapse.” Dick was a physical wreck after that 5k run. But then, something transformative took place. Rick tapped out a message on the Hope Machine that changed their lives forever. Dad, when I am running, I don't even feel like I am handicapped. This communication devastated father Dick, who suddenly realized how vitally important it was for his son to achieve that feeling of freedom from the bonds of a dysfunctional body. Since that first 5k run back in 1977, Team Hoyt has run in at least 70 marathons, 29 of them the famed Boston Marathon. They have competed in 92 half-marathons, over 240 triathlons, 22 duathlons, 6 Ironmans and 7 half-Ironmans. Not only that, but in 1992, Dick put Rick in his bike seat or wheelchair, and the two of them crossed the entire United States, 3,375 miles from the Pacific to the Atlantic. And along the way, they inspired thousands of families with disabled kids to get out and get going.

Since then, Team Hoyt has been the subject of countless articles, television news stories and sports magazine interviews, and was inducted to the Ironman Hall of Fame in 2008 in Hawaii. Team Hoyt carried the Olympic torch through Boston, and on billboards across the country - Dick pushing Rick in the chair with a caption reading simply, DEVOTION - became an iconic image impossible to ignore. In Hawaii, at the Ironman Hall of Fame event, Rick addressed the crowd using his speech synthesizer — and he had the Ironman insignia shaved into the side of his head. "A vegetable is in the Hall of Fame." It brought the house down. In 2006, a five-minute video of Team Hoyt went viral on YouTube. The result was even more attention on getting disabled people into the fray. Among the astounding results of that video has been organizations springing up across the country to find "pushers" for disabled people so that they can join in the movement - literally as well as figuratively.

According to Smith’s SI article, there are now 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. And now, at age 72, after years of 35 years of weekly races, Team Hoyt is still at it. After a heart attack, and all sorts of torn, ripped and sprained tendons and muscles, Dick Hoyt continues to push, pull and carry his disabled son through endless miles of race courses.

Rick, for his part, is nearly 50 years old himself. The wear and tear of bouncing around in bike seats and wheels chairs over pot holes and rocks has taken a horrendous toll on his frail body - the three metal rods that were surgically implanted in his back to support his spine are coming loose, and the pain is excruciating. But neither of them will quit. They're both too courageous, and too devoted, to give up. Even now, in the autumn of 2011, they're still competing. And the race officials continue to feature Team Hoyt in their promotional banners, flyers and web sites. Will they ever quit? It’s unlikely that either will ever willingly do so.

For the son, the thrill of flying down the road, knowing he is helping inspire thousands of others to experience the same rush, is too great to ask the father to finally throw in the towel and retire. And the thrill for the father, freeing his son from his physical prison, is far too great to abandon because of his own slowly failing abilities.

At Novus, our patients are intent on winning the race against substance abuse. The sheer courage to continue, in spite of the difficulties, is buoyed by the goal of freedom from the disability of addiction. We are proud to help our patients in their race to recover their lives.

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