There have been Olympic gold medal winners and Ironman world champions, but Dick and Rick Hoyt may well have brought more newcomers to the sport of triathlon than anyone else on this planet.
If ever there was sporting footage to show that – as Ironman likes to puts it – ‘anything is possible’ – or simply to inspire us off the couch, then the sight of man-mountain Dick, charging down Ali’i Drive pushing his beloved son, Rick, towards the Ironman finish arch in Hawaii in 1989 is that clip.
The duo had already completed a 2.4-mile swim – Dick towing Rick’s dinghy with a strap around his waist – and cycled 112 miles with Rick propped in a chair at the front of the bike. Now, with the hard yards of a marathon through the oppressive heat and humidity of the island behind them, the sun fallen beyond the Pacific horizon, and with cameras flashing all around, the Hoyts’ tale became foremost of all the inspirational narratives Ironman has told over the years.
Rick was born to Dick and Judy in 1962. Complications during the birth restricted oxygen to Rick’s brain and left him with cerebral palsy. As a quadriplegic, doctors advised his parents he’d be better served living in an institution. They refused. Rick graduated with a degree from Boston University in 1993.
Progressing to be lieutenant colonel of the Air National Guard, Dick only found endurance sports through Rick’s insistence, when his teenage son persuaded dad to take him on a five-mile run to fundraise for a lacrosse player who’d been paralysed in an accident.
It was the start of an athletic journey where they’d be inseparable for the next 37 years. On completing that first event, Rick is quoted as saying: “Dad, when I’m running, it feels like I’m not disabled.” While Rick was at school and college, Dick would train with bags of cement in the chair.
The duo completed six Ironman events, but the legacy extends beyond the Big Island. They raced over 1,100 events in total, including a bike-run 3,735-mile trek across the USA in 45 days. They were inducted into both the Ironman and USA Triathlon hall of fames.
Closer to home than Hawaii, was Boston, and while Dick would eventually become honorary grand marshal of the most storied of marathons in 2015, first there were barriers to break down. With echoes of Kathrine Switzer – the first women to run the event who an official tried to manhandle off the course in 1967 – stuffy administrators weren’t keen on letting Dick and Rick enter either. Eventually they agreed, but only if the pair could hit the qualifying mark.
Over time they became synonymous with the Boston Marathon – the 2009 event was their 1,000th race – and a statue of the pair proudly marks the start in Hopkinton. The joyful sight of them descending on the fast, downhill start heading east towards the city would be witnessed over 30 times.
Having decided 2013 would be their final Boston Marathon, the team were about six miles from the finish when the bombs went off. Regular Team Hoyt member Dennis Charles was with him that day. “Dick really stepped up and made sure that people on Team Hoyt were taken care of before we stopped,” Dennis told 220. “Members of the team would constantly talk about him being the type of bloke you’d want in a foxhole with you.”
They returned the following year to honour the victims and survivors of the tragedy – ‘Boston Strong’ – as the mantra was borne, for Dick’s last Boston outing. Rick would continue, with the late Bryan Lyons, also from Massachusetts, a loyal friend and fundraiser, pushing for the next five years.
Dick never lost his competitive edge. “In that very first five-miler they used a conventional wheelchair and came second to last – ‘but not last,’ Dick would always remind us,” Dennis adds. “He was a competitive son of a gun. As late as 2019, I’d have conversations with him about his desire to do Kona ‘one more time.’ He knew his body wasn’t up to it, but the heart and desire was there. He’d talk about finishing 1,200 races, always jokingly acknowledging that Rick finished each one ahead of him.”
The team expanded over time and continues the legacy, raising millions of dollars through the Team Hoyt Foundation to help further the education of people living with disabilities to become active members of their communities. Every year more runners celebrate down the finishing stretch of Boylston Street with the Hoyt slogan ‘Yes You Can!’ emblazoned on their chests and ringing in their ears. Dick was the epitome of those three short words. He proved that ‘Yes, You Can!’ and yes, Dick, you very much did.
Dick Hoyt died at his home in Holland, Massachusetts, on March 17, 2021. Aged 80. He is survived by sons Rick, Rob and Russ, companion Kathy Sullivan-Boyer, and grandchildren.
Top photo by Getty Images