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Boston Marathon icon Dick Hoyt, who pushed son in wheelchair for 32 races, dies

Dick Hoyt and son Rick Hoyt have been fan favorites at the marathon since 1980.
/ Source: TODAY

Dick Hoyt, the Boston Marathon icon who pushed his son Rick Hoyt in a wheelchair at the race for decades, has died at age 80.

News of Dick Hoyt's death was announced by the Boston Athletic Association on Wednesday. "We are tremendously saddened to learn of the passing of Boston Marathon icon Dick Hoyt. Dick personified what it means to be a Boston Marathoner, finishing 32 races with son Rick. We are keeping his many family & friends in our prayers," the organization said in a tweet.

The Holland, Massachusetts resident and his son, known to fans as Team Hoyt, were a fixture at the marathon since their first race in 1980. The legendary duo completed 32 Boston Marathons together with Hoyt pushing his son in a customized racing wheelchair throughout the race's entire 26.2 miles

The BAA called the pair fan favorites whose "bond and presence throughout the course became synonymous with the Boston Marathon."

Dick Hoyt and his son Rick on their way up Heartbreak Hill during the Boston Marathon in 2001. The irrepressible duo ran in the marathon 32 times.John Blanding / Getty

Rick Hoyt, 59, was diagnosed as a spastic quadriplegic with cerebral palsy at birth after his umbilical cord became wrapped around his neck, blocking the flow of oxygen to his brain.

“They said, ‘Forget Rick, put him away, put him in an institution, he’s going to be a vegetable for the rest of his life,’” Dick Hoyt told TODAY in 2013. "Today he’s 51 years old and we still haven’t figured out what kind of vegetable he is — and guess what? That vegetable has been turned into a bronze statue.”

Indeed, the irrepressible father and son duo were memorialized in a life-sized bronze statue at the starting line of the Boston Marathon that year.

Team Hoyt accept the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at The 2013 ESPY Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. in July 2013.Christopher Polk / Getty

The duo had planned to run the race for the last time in 2013. They made it all the way to the marathon's 25-mile mark before learning two bombs had detonated at the finish line, killing 3 people and injuring hundreds of others.

They returned to run in the marathon a final time in 2014.

Hoyt detailed to TODAY how he and his late wife, Judy Hoyt, ignored doctors' advice about institutionalizing their son. Though Rick Hoyt couldn’t speak or use his arms or legs, his parents decided to raise him just like any other child. They took him camping, cross-country skiing and swimming at the beach with his two younger brothers.

They also enrolled him in public schools. He went on to graduate not only from public high school but also from Boston University.

The father and son team began racing together in 1977 after Rick Hoyt attended a college basketball game while in middle school. During the game, he heard an announcement about a student who had been paralyzed in an accident. A charity road race was organized to help the student pay medical bills.

“Rick came home from that basketball game and he said, ‘Dad, I have to do something for him. I want to let him know that life goes on even though he’s paralyzed. I want to run in the race,’” Dick Hoyt recalled.

Though he'd never run in a race before, Hoyt completed the 5-mile course while pushing his son in a heavy, box-shaped chair with handles on top.

“We came in next to last, but not last,” said Hoyt. “When we got home that night, Rick wrote on his computer, ‘Dad when I’m running, it feels like my disability disappears’ — which was a very powerful message to me."

The Hoyts eventually had a customized chair created, and they kept on running and training together. They also fashioned a special boat and bicycle so they could swim and ride together in triathlons.

Team Hoyt completed more than 1,100 races together, including at least 257 triathlons (six of which were the same distance as the Ironman race). They also crossed the country by bicycle and by running over 45 days, according to the Team Hoyt website.

The duo's decades of spirited competitiveness inspired legions of fans, including many who never imagined themselves as athletes.

“It gives me a great feeling inside to see other families run with their family member with a disability, or for people without disabilities to push people who are disabled in races,” said Hoyt.

“We run for the people who think they can’t run.”