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Boston's strongest

7/16/2013
Dick and Rick Hoyt, known as Team Hoyt, were a mile from finishing their 31st Boston Marathon in April when the race was halted due to the bombings. AP Photo/Stew Milne

The statue was a fine likeness, a bronze replica of the inspirational legacy of Dick and Rick Hoyt.

They unveiled it together, father and son, steps from the starting point of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass. It was a beautiful spring New England morning in April, where they would, once again, demonstrate that anything was possible.

For three decades, they had been competing together in the iconic Boston race. The presence of the burly retired lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard pushing his quadriplegic son in a specially fitted wheel chair had become woven into the fabric of the marathon's rich history.

Everyone knew the Hoyts. They were met with the grandest and most heartfelt applause, with a deep respect not readily dispensed in a discerning region that above all values grit, determination and perseverance.

The Hoyts are a symbol of everything we admire, a New England treasure, yet it wasn't always so. In the beginning, some turned away from Rick's spastic, twisted body. Others wrote angry letters to Dick, asking him what kind of man would put his disabled son through such an ordeal for his own glorification.

They had it backward. It was Rick who hatched the plan to compete in tandem with his father. Although his body was still, his mind was forever churning. The boy whose umbilical cord snaked around his neck at birth and deprived his brain of oxygen, who was left with cerebral palsy and was told he would never walk, talk or function at any significant level, craved a purpose.

After the birth of Rick, their first child, Dick and his wife, Judy, were told by the doctors there was nothing to be done.

"They said we should institutionalize him,'' Dick said. "They told us Rick would always be a 'vegetable.'"

"Well, here we are, 51 years later, and we're still trying to figure out exactly what kind of vegetable he is.''

The mistake the doctors made was to not only underestimate Rick's resolute parents, but also to doubt the child, who would strive to grow up in the same manner as the two brothers who followed him. He hiked with the family, draped over his father's back. He learned to communicate through a computerized machine, a painstaking process in which he tapped his head against a pad to create letters.

When Rick was a teen, he learned about a 5K charity race for a lacrosse player paralyzed in an accident. He implored his father to do the race with him.

Dick, years removed from any significant training, wasn't sure he had the stamina or the mental willpower to compete. The chair he fashioned for Rick was rudimentary. Could he cross the finish line without toppling his handicapped son?

Friends felt certain the Hoyts would run a few meters, then bow out gracefully.

Yet when father and son crossed the finish line, next-to-last in the field, young Rick was beaming.

"When I'm running,'' he wrote, "it feels like I'm not handicapped.''

Their 5K races turned into 10K's, then even longer distances. Soon, they were racing in triathlons. Dick never swam, except recreationally, and hadn't ridden a bike since he was a child.

But the Hoyts found a way. They trained on a special two-seater bike. For the swimming portion of the competitions, Dick pulled Rick in a small inflatable boat that was attached to his waist with a cord.

Their motto, "Yes We Can!" was stretched to extraordinary lengths. They competed in hundreds of races, including the Ironman triathlon in Hawaii -- a grueling 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile marathon.

In 1992, they biked across America, covering 3,735 miles in 45 days.

On July 17, Dick and Rick Hoyt will receive the Jimmy V Perseverance Award, presented to them by Boston's own Ben Affleck as a tribute to their tireless efforts on behalf of young, disabled adults. It includes the formation of Team Hoyt, a nonprofit foundation that aims to inspire young people with disabilities to reach their potential.

By April 2013, Dick's body had been ravaged by years of competition. He had survived heart trouble, ripped tendons, torn hamstrings and feet so badly mangled that for months at a time all 10 toenails had fallen off.

He was nearly 73, and he and Rick decided the 2013 Boston Marathon would be their last.

"Let's make it a memorable one," the father told his son.

It was, for all the wrong reasons.

One mile from the finish, at Kenmore Square, where Rick's college friends from Boston University used to cheer them on, Dick could sense something wasn't quite right.

A cadre of police approached the runners and instructed them to stop.

"As soon as I heard what happened,'' Dick said, "I knew our marathon was over.''

Two bombs, just seconds apart, had exploded at the finish line on Boylston Street, killing three spectators and wounding hundreds more. Innocent bystanders had their limbs blown from their bodies.

Dick no longer cared about their time. One of his other sons had been waiting on Boylston Street, his grandchildren, too, along with his girlfriend, Kathy Boyer, and countless other volunteers of Team Hoyt.

It would be hours before the Hoyts and their supporters would make contact and learn that all of them had survived physically unscathed.

Rick's bulky chair made it impossible to hail a cab. A bystander offered his Jeep as transportation to the Hoyts, but the chair couldn't fit in that either.

Four members of Team Hoyt volunteered to push the chair to the Sheraton Hotel. Dick and Rick accepted the ride from the stranger in the Jeep.

"I'm sure my 51-year-old son wasn't happy about sitting in my lap,'' Dick said. "But we didn't have much of a choice. His body is like Jell-O.''

With most of the streets blocked off, it took an hour to go three-quarters of a mile. As the Jeep approached the Sheraton, police stopped the car and informed them they could go no farther.

"Look,'' the driver said, "I've got Dick and Rick Hoyt here. They don't have Rick's chair. We need to get closer.''

Without hesitation, the police waved them on.

In the weeks and months that followed, runners were given the opportunity to finish the marathon. The Hoyts received many invitations to complete the course but declined.

"It just wasn't important to me,'' Dick said. "There was so much tragedy. I was more worried about the people who were killed, those who were injured and their families.''

The reverberations of the terrorist attack continue to haunt Boston. Many struggle to heal from the physical and emotional scars of the attack.

"It has affected Rick,'' Dick said. "It was very upsetting. Every time he saw something on the television, it brought it all back.''

The Hoyts have forged on, recently competing in their 1,100th race. Their legacy has been cemented by the scores of families who now proudly push their own disabled children through the streets of New England, and across the world.

Although the 2013 Boston Marathon was to be their last, the Hoyts will return in 2014 for one final race, in memory of the victims of the bombing.

"We won't retire from competing, but it's getting time for us," Dick said. "Rick still loves to be out there. All those people that we inspired are now inspiring us.''

In the wake of the marathon tragedy, the city adopted the motto "Boston Strong" to move beyond the horror.

Nobody personifies that more than Dick and Rick Hoyt, a father and son who drew strength from one another to prove that anything and everything is possible.