I had the absolute honour of speaking to the amazing Dick Hoyt recently. Never heard of him? Do yourself a favour and read on...
The path to finding ones purpose is a unique and personal journey. For some, it strikes them like a lightning bolt from the heavens. Others have it thrust upon them, like Dick Hoyt whose son Rick was born with cerebral palsy. For anyone still searching or struggling to find their purpose or passion, Dick Hoyt has one simple message, “Yes you can.”
Dick Hoyt didn’t set out to be an inspiration. As one of ten children, he was raised to do things the hard way, perhaps that’s what attracted him to a career in the military. Life changed forever when his first son, Rick, was born with cerebral palsy in 1962. Dick and Judy Hoyt were told their son was a vegetable and should be institutionalised. “Forget about him,” they were told. “We cried a bit and then we talked,” Dick recalls. “You could tell by looking in his eyes that he was smart and paying attention to everything we said.” The Hoyts took one day at a time with their special little boy and eventually convinced a team of engineers to create a custom-designed computer to help Rick communicate. This incredible machine enabled Rick to not only complete school but to then move on to university where he achieved a degree in special education.
It was while at university that Rick first convinced his father to compete in a charity run for a student who had become paralysed in an accident. Rick said to his father, “I want to let him know that life goes on.” Despite finishing next to last, after the race Rick typed a simple sentence to his Father that changed his life forever, “When I’m running it feels like I’m not handicapped.”
More than 30 years later, Dick has pushed, pulled and carried Rick in 1073 different marathons, triathlons and ironman triathlons. The numbers are extraordinary; a gruelling 32 races a year (down from 50 a year at their peak), the longest being the notorious Ironman Triathlon with distances of 3.86km swim, 180.25 bike, 42.2 run. The most extraordinary number though is their ages. Rick is 50 and Dick will turn 72 later this year. Team Hoyt, as they are now collectively known, are an unstoppable force.
The pure joy on Rick’s face as they cross the finish line is moving stuff and is the fuel Dick needs to continue. Watch any footage of the pair in action and Team Hoyts message of “Yes you can” feels absolutely possible. Dick’s motivation has never been in question. Only once have they pulled out of a race, after they crashed out in the bike leg of the Hawaiian Ironman. “There’s something that gets into me when we’re out there that I can’t explain. It makes me go faster,” Dick says with his relaxed Boston drawl.
He is often asked the question of how much longer he can keep this up. While most of his contemporaries are deeply settled into retirement, Dick laces up his sneakers each morning often in temperatures that plummet to -5 degrees. He admits that the early mornings are getting harder but he only needs to look at his son for inspiration. “The easiest thing Rick could have done was quit,” he says. “But he’s a fighter, he never gives up. We’ll keep this up as long as we’re still enjoying it”.
It’s not suprising that when Dick does have any precious down time he prefers to spend it enjoying the company of his family. Simple pleasures like fishing or water skiing with his four grandsons bring him the greatest joy. The family also own a small restaurant and ice-cream stand, Team Hoyt’s Finish Line. As well as a reputation for the best ice-cream, the café is full of Team Hoyt memorabilia and is a popular stop for tourists.
Any break is never too long though. With mounting injuries and state of the art equipment required for races, the cost to maintain Team Hoyt is astounding, so now on top of his training, Dick also travels the world as a motivational speaker. His “yes you can” message is a powerful one that has changed the lives of alcoholics, drug addicts and people on the verge of suicide. What began as a quest to bring happiness to his son, now feels like a much broader duty.
Dick is most proud of the changes he has seen in other families with disabled children and how they have been encouraged to take a more active role in their child’s life. In 1962 people with disability were removed from mainstream society and most people would never have seen anyone in a wheelchair. The Hoyts were determined that their child wouldn’t miss out on a thing. “We took Rick everywhere with us. To the shops, to restaurants, and people would leave because they didn’t want to be around us,” says Dick. Team Hoyt have now inspired similar pairings around the world with athletes volunteering their time and bodies to give those with a disability the chance to feel free of their physical boundaries. Where the Hoyts were once not even accepted in their own home town, they are welcomed with open arms the world over. Dick admits there’s still some work to be done in overcoming people’s prejudices, but through the sheer determination of his family, Rick has been fortunate to live a fuller life than many able-bodied people.
Dick’s advice can be applied to virtually any dilemma and is almost frustratingly simple. “If you are focused you will be able to accomplish almost anything you set your mind to. It might be hard, but you can do it.”
It seems the Team Hoyt phenomenon is far from finished. There are many races still on their ‘to do’ list and they would love to one day compete in Australia. It’s been a journey that has given Dick’s life a depth of purpose he could never have imagined and for Rick it’s a journey that transcends the limitations of his body, and other people’s minds.