A life-sized, 300-pound statue of Dick Hoyt pushing his adult son, Rick, in a racing wheelchair sits in the living room of Hoyt's home. The statue is as immobile and lifeless as Rick was supposed to be when he was born quadriplegic with cerebral palsy. It rests, still and silent, the way the disabled were supposed to live in the 1960s, when the Americans with Disabilities Act was still decades away and a flight of insurmountable stairs greeted the wheelchair-bound at city halls and schools, when doctors declared that Rick would live his life in an institution as a vegetable.
"The vegetable has been turned into a bronze statue," Dick Hoyt said earlier this week as he and Rick prepared for both their 31st Boston Marathon and the unveiling of a public statue of the inspirational father and son that will dwarf their living room replica.
The new Hoyt statue, commissioned by Team Hoyt sponsor John Hancock in 2011, will be unveiled near the starting line of the Boston Marathon at the Hopkinton Center School on Monday, six days before the race that Team Hoyt has made their signature event since 1977. Neither Dick nor Rick has seen the full statue, though they (and some photographers) caught glimpses of it before it was removed from its crate and covered in blankets. Team Hoyt has partnered with Timex for their "I am a runner" campaign, a platform for amateur runners to share their stories. There is no runner's story quite like the story of Team Hoyt, the story of a family -- and a nation -- learning to not put limits on human accomplishment.
The statue signifies just how many people have been inspired by Team Hoyt, and it inspires them as well "If he was ever going to get up and walk, it was the day that he learned they were going to make a bronze statue of him," Hoyt said of Rick's reaction.
Bumpy Roads. The story of a 72-year-old man, a decade removed from a heart attack, running in his 31st Boston Marathon, is inspirational by itself.
And then we add the 51-year-old son, paralyzed from birth and unable to speak but taught to communicate by parents convinced that he was intelligent; the child who became a pioneer for the disabled, attended public school in the dark ages before inclusion programs and graduated from Boston University; a young man who convinced his father to push him in a 5K benefit run in 1977 to show a recently injured local athlete that paralysis is not a death sentence. Pair the aging father with the driven son, and Team Hoyt becomes a worthy subject for a movie, a book, a national awareness campaign.
But then we add the hardships of 2012. Rick suffered from a spinal condition for years. His back twisted to the left and sloped downward. The bumpy roads of distance runs caused him incredible pain, and like his father, he was not getting younger. In September, doctors screwed an L-shaped rod into some rods that had been inserted into his spine earlier in life to correct the problem, but when the screws began to sheer, a second operation was necessary.
The second operation added wires to support the screws -- Rick's back starting to sound like a jerry-rigged garden fence -- but Rick was taken off his medication for too long after surgery. He had a seizure. Dick was at his son's bedside at 2 a.m. as Rick turned blue and began to swallow his tongue. "I thought he was going to die," Hoyt said.
Rick recovered. Now there is no pain in his back. "He's sitting up straighter than he ever has before," his father said. Rick can use his computer to communicate more effectively from his new posture. About six weeks after two surgeries and a terrifying ordeal, Rick and his father were back on the road, speaking, presenting and running.
Add that story to the story of the septuagenarian marathoner and the son who defied all odds and expectations, and you have something that transcends the inspirational sports story. You have a true story of human perseverance, endurance, obsession and devotion. You have the stuff of statues.
Distance Memories. Dick Hoyt was an Air National Guard officer with no distance running experience since boot camp when Rick convinced him to run in that first 5K benefit. The Hoyts barely finished, with little help from a wheelchair about as suitable to the task as wheelbarrow. There were no all-terrain wheelchairs or basketball wheelchairs, no culture of athletics or activities that treated the disabled as equals.
"When we first started, no one wanted to have anything to do with us," Hoyt said. "Nobody came near us. Nobody talked to us. Nobody wanted us to race."
Parents of disabled children even sent Hoyt angry letters after those early races, accusing him of parading his son around in the name of personal glory. "None of them realized that Rick was the one dragging me," Dick said.
After that first race, Rick told his father: "Dad, when I'm running, it feels like I'm not handicapped." It was all Rick needed to hear to up the ante. The Hoyts began running marathons. Then, they graduated to triathlons, with Dick pulling Rick on a specially designed raft during the swimming portion of the races. The Hoyts had to battle for the right to participate in some of those early events. But public attitudes changed, in part because they were changing them.
Rick and Dick became Team Hoyt, with sponsors, teammates and speaking engagements. They bicycled across the United States in 1992. They ran their 1,000th race in 2009. Dick's heart attack only slowed the team down briefly in 2002. He suffered it while running, but felt only "a tickle in the throat" and a roaring thirst, and he actually finished the race and waited a month before consulting a cardiologist. A bad reaction to his medication, not the heart attack itself, kept Team Hoyt out of that year's Boston Marathon.
Team Hoyt has 22 triathlons of various lengths scheduled this summer, not to mention a grueling schedule of speaking engagements. The Hoyt Foundation, their nonprofit organization, has 20 chapters around the world, encouraging families to get disabled youngsters involved in sports and other community activities. It is no longer unusual to see a runner pushing a loved one in a distance run. Hoyt believes that there will soon be "races where you won't be allowed to run unless you are pushing someone."
It's all thousands of miles from the days when a runner pushing a wheelchair was frowned upon by both the running community and society at large, thousands of miles that Team Hoyt covered one stride at a time.
Still Motivated, Motivating. The backward attitudes of a generation past did not slow Dick and Rick Hoyt down. Neither a heart attack nor surgeries and seizures slowed them down. But time conquers all. Dick is starting to take the Ironman-level triathlons off the schedule. Marathons are giving way to half marathons. Dick is still in excellent shape -- "I still go out and do everything I have always done," he said this week -- but the bronze statue is a reminder that while some things are timeless, nothing lasts forever.
Team Hoyt may give up marathons altogether soon, though the Boston will be the last to go. "I have to talk to Rick," Dick said. "We have to see how this Boston Marathon goes this year." Age takes its toll, but the support of hundreds of thousands, and the urge to defy even greater odds, pushes Team Hoyt forward. "We are still motivating people around the world," Dick said, "and they are motivating us."
That global message has taken Team Hoyt to Japan and China, nations and cultures just realizing that the disabled are capable of much more than a comfortable life of closeted inertia. Team Hoyt's "Yes, You Can" message takes on threefold significance for a world still learning to be inclusive. Yes, the disabled can live purposeful lives. Yes, their loved ones can achieve great things. Yes, society can benefit from working harder to accommodate the disabled, meeting them halfway so they can make their contribution.
The only member of Team Hoyt that does not pull its own weight is that living room statue. Dick wants to take it to speaking engagements around the world, but it barely budges. "Eventually, I want to put it on a platform and put it on wheels so I can wheel it out," Dick said.
Dick has done enough pushing in the name of awareness, acceptance and inspiration. The statue, like the giant one which will be unveiled on Monday, can stay put.