We Rise by Lifting Others
Nick Langer carries on the Hoyt legacy, racing with his daughter with special needs and raising awareness of inclusion of people with disabilities.
Forty years apart, two fathers push their children, both in wheelchairs, through a race course to reach a finish line doctors had said would never come.
Two fathers become the arms and legs of their children whose own limbs won’t get them there.
Two fathers, able-bodied and strong, carry the weight of their children with special needs and fulfill both their dreams.
Nick Langer (M40-44) was in college when he first learned about the careers of Dick and Rick Hoyt, a father/son racing team. The father of the duo, Dick, pushed his son, Rick, a quadriplegic born with cerebral palsy, in a special wheelchair to finish over 1,000 races, including six Ironmans, and 32 Boston Marathon runs.
A documentary about the Hoyts aired on TV while Nick was sitting on the couch feeling sorry for himself. A shoulder injury had ended his college wrestling career and the former athlete was out of shape and out of sorts. He watched the Hoyts cross the finish line at an 1989 Ironman and the image of the ecstatic son and proud father changed something in him. He thought, OK, if this dad can do an entire Ironman pushing his son, I can get off my couch. I can do a triathlon by myself.
Sixteen years later, with more than 150 races, including eight Ironmans of his own, under his belt, Nick pushed his then 4-year old daughter Ellery, born with cerebral palsy, in her first triathlon with the same equipment used by the Hoyts.
It was at the Pardeeville Triathlon near their home in Madison, Wisconsin, where Ellery, whose parents were told might not survive, whose parents were told might never walk, whose parents never gave up on her, carried herself on her own two feet across the finish line.
Remember why you got into the sport
Doctors didn’t want to get Nick and his wife Nicole’s hopes up when Ellery was born. She arrived almost a month premature and had suffered several strokes while in utero. The diagnosis was devastating: cerebral palsy, a group of disorders that affect movement, muscle tone and posture caused by damage to a developing brain. The same disorder that affected Rick Hoyt.
What followed was a dark time. Doctor’s appointments. Fights with insurance companies. Handling a new infant with special needs along with their toddler. Nick didn’t have the time, energy or desire for training.
“As a triathlete, our nature is to prove people wrong and that really set me off and shut me down,” said Nick. “It took me months to get out of the funk.”
It was Nick’s sister, Whitney, who knew what to say: Remember why you got into the sport.
“It was a lightbulb moment,” said Nick. “I got into the sport because of them – Dick and Rick Hoyt. I looked at the father that Dick was and I completely flipped it. I focused on my racing, my physical and mental health. I needed to show my family that we could do this.”
From then on, Nick and his family were determined to prove everyone wrong, and at every turn they succeeded. He threw himself back into training and racing, competing locally at the elite level and achieving impressive age group finishes at national races.
In September 2021, he placed 4th in his age group at the Ironman Maryland, reaching the pinnacle of triathlon, what he’d been working toward for years, qualifying for the Kona World Championships this fall.
But, it’s Ellery who has truly surpassed expectations. Through intensive therapy, Ellery, now a happy 10-year old with thick locks of hair she wears tied back in her signature bows, began to do things no one thought she could. She smiles. She pulls herself to stand. She can walk unsupported. The walking isn’t perfect; she stumbles and falls at times. But just like everything in her life, she brushes it off, picks herself back up and keeps moving forward. And while she is nonverbal, her family has learned to read her signals and facial expressions to understand her feelings and preferences.
Those feelings were clear when Nick first decided to try a triathlon with her, just like his role models, the Hoyts, did.
“The minute I put her in the raft, I was hooked,” said Nick. “The smile on her face…she was so excited to be out there on the water. I put her on the bike and she screamed with joy.”
Meeting your idol
To prepare for that race, Nick contacted the Hoyts who directed them to My Team Triumph, a non-profit group that provides opportunities for individuals with special needs to participate in races alongside able-bodied athletes. The group supplies specialized racing gear and offers inclusive programs and events to support this community.
Nick and Dick developed a bond as the experienced father and triathlete supplied the younger one with advice, guidance and support. They had communicated by phone numerous times when they finally got the chance to meet at packet pickup for the 2016 Boston Marathon where the Hoyts had a booth for Team Hoyt.
“I was like a kid in a candy shop. The excitement in me–my wife had to tell me to calm down,” said Nick. “It was the ugliest cry of my life…just to meet the guy who inspired me twice.”
Nick and his wife shared photos of Ellery with the Hoyts. It was like finding family.
“If you ever get to meet your idol or mentor, take it,” said Nick. “That was a moment I will never forget.”
Although they did not meet in person again, the pair kept in touch over the years and continued their relationship until Dick’s passing in 2021.
“With Ellery, there’s been setbacks, but if you find the right motivation and cause, that will drive you,” said Nick. “Luckily, I had a great mentor to show me the ropes in Dick.”
Following the Hoyts’ example of philanthropy, Nick formed his own charitable organization, Team Langer, which works to promote inclusion for people with disabilities while raising money to support families impacted by childhood disabilities.
Having a child with special needs impacts everyone in the family, including Nick and Nicole’s two other children, Rowen (12) and Avery (7), all of whom are athletes in their own right. And while they’ve been lucky to have the medical and financial resources to care for Ellery, many families do not. So Team Langer provides holistic support not only for the kids with special needs, but their parents and siblings as well.
Today, Team Langer participates in local races and holds events to spread awareness, acceptance and assistance for special needs families. Ellery’s bike and running cart is specially decked out in purple butterflies, a symbol of her endurance, change, hope and freedom to fly through the course.
Fly she does. “She loves the bumps, the wind in her face,” said Nick. “I don’t care about getting passed, I enjoy getting passed, because I can hear her screams coming from the back.”
Right now, Nick is focused on preparing for the World Championships in Kona, but after that triumph, his own racing will take a back seat to racing with Ellery.
“I’m 90% racing for me and 10% for my daughter and after that it will flip flop,” said Nick.
In addition to the half dozen races Team Langer does a year, they have big plans for the future. When Ellery is 16 the pair can compete in a half Ironman and they have plans to do the full Ironman Wisconsin in 2030 when Ellery turns 18.
The Team Langer motto is a quote from Robert Ingersoll, “We rise by lifting others.” It’s fair to say that the Langer family has risen to where they are because of the Hoyts. Who knows who the Langers will lift?
To learn more about Team Langer or make a donation, please visit teamlanger.com.