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Lori Riley: Dick Hoyt pushed his son in races, advocated for inclusion of the disabled, and left behind a wonderful legacy that others have followed
Hartford Courant - 4/4/2021
Mason Joyce was born with cerebral palsy and has a seizure disorder. He’s nonverbal and can’t walk.
But when Joyce, 31, of Bristol gets out in his racing wheelchair with his dad, Jim, pushing him, everything changes.
“We’ve done two full marathons,” Jim said. “We’ve done Hartford twice. He was like the mayor of Hartford when he’s out there. People are saying his name. He’s looking at the cowbells, the noise, all that stuff, it’s stimuli for him. It’s been so therapeutic for him. He went from having four seizures a day to last year, he had two in the whole year. We’re not just sitting in the house. We’re out in the community.”
The Joyces are part of Team Hoyt New England, a piece of the legacy left by Dick Hoyt, who died March 17 at 80 of congestive heart failure. Dick, who lived in Holland, Mass., started pushing his son, Rick, 59, who has cerebral palsy and is a quadriplegic and nonverbal, in a wheelchair in road races in 1977. Dick and Rick became road race icons, competing in 32 Boston Marathons from 1980-2014, six Ironman Triathlons, a run/bike across the country and over a thousand races.
They started the Hoyt Foundation, which advocates for inclusion of disabled people in all facets of daily life, including sports. There are 11 Team Hoyt chapters throughout the country and Canada and countless other similar organizations throughout the world.
Kathy Boyer, Team Hoyt’s business manager and Dick’s girlfriend for the last 18 years, estimated that Dick and Rick affected “hundreds of thousands” of people.
“Our journey is so much better because of Dick and Rick,” Jim Joyce said. “We’re in the community, we’re out enjoying life. We’re not on the sidelines, we’re in the race.”
Dick retired from pushing Rick at the Boston Marathon and other marathons after 2014 due to health issues. Bryan Lyons took over from 2015-18 but Rick sat out the 2019 Boston Marathon due to health conditions and Lyons died suddenly in his sleep at age 50 in January 2020. Due to COVID-19, Boston was canceled last April and has been postponed this year until the fall.
Curt Leuker saw the Hoyts competing in a triathlon in San Diego in the early 2000s but he didn’t know what he was seeing at first.
“I saw a guy swimming and towing a boat,” said Leuker, of Westport, who was a triathlete struggling with his own training at the time.
“I thought, ‘That’s very strange to have a rescue team pulling someone in but I guess that’s how they do it in San Diego.’ Then I saw there was a guy in the boat and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, they rescued somebody.’ Then I realized when he got to the beach, no one helped him with this poor guy in the boat. He pulled the boat in and pulled the boy out of the back and ran up the beach and I thought, ‘What is going on here?’
“Somebody said, ‘Don’t you know, that’s Dick and Rick Hoyt?’ Dick put Rick on the bike and off they went – and I thought – I get chills just thinking about it, ‘Oh my God, if they can do what they’re doing, I’m going to train, I’m going to do better in my races. I think maybe I just met my heroes in life.’”
In 2017, Leuker started the Connecticut chapter of My Team Triumph, a program which partners disabled people with able-bodied runners.
“I was just trying to see if I could find a way to push someone through a race,” Leuker said. “I couldn’t find anything in Connecticut. I found MTT out of Michigan. Before I knew it, we were starting the Connecticut chapter.”
He laughed. There are 250 people involved in his organization.
“I thought, ‘This is going to be really fun to help someone be in a race’ but man, I had no idea what this thing is really about – what it’s really about is about helping people with disabilities or unique abilities feel included in the community,” he said. “The person with the disability, we call them the captain of the team. Families would say, ‘My son or daughter has never been on a team before. They’ve never been a captain of a team.’
“That’s what Dick and Rick were all about. You’d see them doing a race and say, ‘Oh they’re just racing’ but there was so much more to what they were doing.”
Greg Selavka, 29, of Manchester was born with cerebral palsy and is nonverbal and non-ambulatory. He has been partnered with Kevin Toomey of Bristol, who pushes athletes for Team Hoyt New England and another organization called Ainsley’s Angels. The two have run 30 races together, including the Hartford Marathon half marathon.
“This has brought speed, independence, a ‘guy thing,’ love, meeting people, into Greg’s life,” Greg’s mother, Anne, said. “It’s a ‘Greg and Kevin thing.’”
Anne Selavka never met Dick Hoyt but her husband did, when he took Greg to a 5K race the Hoyts held in Holland, Mass.
“Looking at the photos and the way he looked at my own son. ... I advocated for my own son but this man took it to a level where you can’t even imagine,” she said.
“When I see [Greg and Toomey] following the cop on the motorcycle at the Capitol in the middle of the road [at the Hartford Marathon’s half marathon], I didn’t ever think I’d see my son doing this. You feel like you can never say thank you enough to Kevin – he’s not just running 13.1 miles, he’s pushing my son who weighs 130 pounds, in a chair.
“It’s just such an amazing thing. One man had a vision and created it.”
Lori Riley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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