It was July 1980 when I received this phone call: “Hello, Tom. I’d like to come with my son to run in your North Andover Turkey Town Fourth of July Race, but our entry doesn’t really fit any of your categories, so I want to make sure if it’s OK to come. We’re not looking for any favors, just to be treated as runners.”
Well, that seemed like a pretty simple request, but it led to a decadeslong friendship with a man who became a legend, along with the son he loved. They were Team Hoyt.
Over the next 40 years, Dick Hoyt would become a well-recognized figure in the world of road races from marathons, triathlons and even the World Championship Ironman competition in Kona.
To amass such a racing resume is admirable, but the incomparable Dick Hoyt did it while pushing his quadriplegic son, Rick. The remarkable story of Rick and Dick Hoyt has inspired millions of people throughout the world.
In 1962, Rick was born to Dick and his wife, Judith. But due to oxygen deprivation to Rick’s brain during birth, he was diagnosed as a spastic quadriplegic with cerebral palsy. The doctors gave little hope to his parents that he would ever lead a normal life, and strongly urged institutionalization. They would have none of that and were determined to provide Rick with the fullest life possible.
The big breakthrough came in 1972 when engineers at Tufts University devised a computer that Rick could manipulate with head taps. He could, for the first time, clearly communicate. He tapped his first sentence, “Go, Bruins!” Because of the persistence of Dick and Judy, at age 13 Rick was finally admitted to public school.
By 1977, Rick was in high school, and it was then when he announced to his dad that he wanted to participate in a race benefitting a fellow student, who had been paralyzed in an accident. Dick was not a runner at the time, and there was no such thing as a “racing wheelchair,” but this devoted dad agreed to his son’s wish.
They raced, and Dick managed to get his son to the finish line ahead of just one other runner, where the magic was just getting started. After the race, Rick expressed his joy via his computer. “I felt like I wasn’t disabled anymore,” he said, and there began a team effort that would ultimately bring them to well over 1,000 races all over the globe.
After making their running debut, the father-son duo began to enter many more races, including that 10k in North Andover they needed in order to earn an official entry in the 1981 Boston Marathon.
Nonrunner Dick got stronger and faster with each succeeding event after that initial 1977 run, and by 1980 they thought they were ready to run the Boston Marathon, the most famous long-distance race in the world. The problem, though, was the Boston Marathon didn’t know what to do with the duo. They couldn’t be a wheelchair entry, and they obviously weren’t an individual entry. So in 1980, they were an unofficial entry. To gain an official entry, Dick was tasked with having to run the same qualifying time as an individual, while pushing Rick. So he did, and in 1981 they were official entrants.
For Team Hoyt, this was the start of a string of 32 Boston Marathons. For most of their races, I was in the field of runners, as well. We often chased each other. To put our friendly competition in perspective, Dick was nine years older than I was, and was also pushing his 125-pound son in a wheelchair, yet I found it a challenge to keep pace with this incredible athlete.
How good was he? In 1992, he ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. in 2:40:47, which was good enough to win the 50- to 59-year-old age group. That’s running at a 6:10-mile pace while pushing his son. Rick and Dick were just getting started with their incredible feats.
Their accomplishments inspired athletes around the world to go beyond their goals with the Hoyts’ motto, “Yes, You Can!”
I know my friend Dick inspired me to have the confidence to try greater challenges than seemed possible. For that, I owe him a great deal of gratitude.
In 2004, I, along with Boston Marathon race director and Medford native and longtime North Andover resident Dave McGillivray and eight others, formed a team that ran across the country relay style. We started in San Francisco and finished in Boston. Our team was named TREK - Transcontinental Relay Embracing Kids - which raised $300,000 for several kids’ charities.
That was pretty impressive, but let’s put it in “Hoyt Perspective.” In 1992, Dick ran and rode with Rick across the country in 45 days. Not a team of runners, just the two of them. They called their adventure “The Trek across America.”
In 2007, I had the chance to compete in the most challenging event of my life, the World Championship Ironman in Kona, Hawaii. I trained harder than I ever have before for more than a year to prepare for the ultimate challenge of swimming 2.4 open ocean miles, biking 112-miles in the blazing heat of the Queen K Highway through remnants of lava fields before running a punishing 26.2-mile marathon. It would all be done in the unrelenting heat of Hawaii. I’m very proud to say that I accomplished my goal in 13:39:16. Was it impressive, well, let’s put it once again in terms of the “Hoyt perspective.”
In the 1980s, Dick decided it was time to take on another challenge, and that was as a triathlon tandem. The obstacles were massive, but in true Team Hoyt style, no mountain was too high to climb. The first challenge was that Dick wasn’t a swimmer. That should have been enough to stop him, but that led to them moving to their Holland, Massachusetts home on a lake, where Dick could learn to become a swimmer. Then there was the bike. A specially crafted bike was designed on which Rick would sit up front, while Dick provided the pedal power. It was custom designed, but significantly heavier than a typical triathlon racing bike. The swim would be managed by a bungee cord attached to a vest around Dick connected to a rubber raft for his son. Incredibly, in 1989, this duo team took on the Kona World Championship Ironman and ended up completing the course in 14:26:04, well under the 17-hour cutoff. He returned there in 1999 for a repeat performance. In January of 2020, Dick and Rick were inducted into the Ironman Hall of Fame.
In 2011, I competed in my final Boston Marathon race. It was my 35th straight run from Hopkinton to Boston. Of course, Dick and Rick were still at it, and our paths crossed many times over those years. As a member of the Boston Marathon Organizing Committee, I assured my pals Dick and Rick that I would still be on the course to cheer them on. In 2012, I greeted them at the start line and watched them finish yet again. In 2013, I was again at the start line, but their appearance at the finish line was cut short when two bombs exploded near the finish line. That was slated to be Dick’s last marathon as he was then in his 70s. Never to be denied, Dick returned with Rick in 2014 to take care of unfinished business.
During the next few years, marathon duties were handed to another world-class nice guy and friend, Bryan Lyons. Brian’s love and devotion to Rick assured the continuation of a Team Hoyt Boston finish for years to come. In 2019, however, it was not a good year for Team Hoyt.
Rick was unable to participate in the 2019 marathon due to health issues, and Dick suffered a minor heart attack. Dick had 95% of his arteries blocked, but he was the first to say that his son Rick saved his life, because of the many years of training with him made his heart strong enough to overcome it.
Ironically, it was one more thing we shared together. I too had major cardiac surgery for blocked arteries in 2015, and I’m sure all of my past running saved my life.
As difficult as 2019 was, 2020 was worse. The first massive disrupter was the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did it mean that there would be no Boston Marathon in April, but it also meant isolation for Rick, whose health concerns meant placement in an assisted living facility and quarantining from dad. Then, the unspeakable happened. At age 50, Bryan Lyons died in his sleep, and Rick’s heart was broken.
Over the past four-plus decades, Dick and I remained friends, and each Thanksgiving week we’d get to spend time together, because Team Hoyt was perennial VIP guests of the North Andover Feaster Five Thanksgiving Day Race.
At the race Expo, Rick and Dick always had a line of folks seeking a word, an autograph and a photo, and then the cheers at the finish line on Thanksgiving morning were always the loudest when they crossed. The 2020 race would be different, though.
Like so many races since the pandemic, the Feaster Five went virtual. For the first time in more than 20 years, the Hoyts would not be making a personal appearance. Instead, Dick agreed to do a promotional video for us. I traveled to his home in Holland, along with our videographer Greg Shea, where we filmed an intimate conversation looking back on the legacy of Team Hoyt. We recalled the many years together and laughed about the photo collage he gave me where he jokingly socked me with a giant boxing glove. Though Dick was animated, I could see that his cardiac issues had taken a bit of a toll. I worried about him, as I worried about Rick, who was still quarantined.
The video was posted and viewed by thousands as anything involving the Hoyts garners tremendous attention from fans across the globe. I was honored to have the chance to do the video with him, and it became more precious to me on the morning of March 17. At age 80, Dick passed away in his sleep due to congestive heart failure.
Dick was more than an extraordinary athlete. He was a devoted dad, who accomplished extraordinary feats for the love of his son. But even more than that, he parlayed the Team Hoyt notoriety into the Team Hoyt Foundation that has raised thousands of dollars to help other disabled athletes. He was truly a generous man, who did more than just proclaim, “Yes, You Can!”
It is hard to imagine this lonelier world without Dick, but his legacy will live on. He may be gone, but I can still hear him say, “Yes, You Can!” He will continue to inspire, so that many more can proudly say, “Yes, we did!”
Tom Licciardello is a founding member of the Merrimack Valley Striders. Licciardello has participated in 35 Boston’s and 88 marathons altogether, and is a BAA Boston Marathon volunteer. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.