It’s a Saturday afternoon at Southbridge Tool and Manufacturing Co. in Dudley. A welder is working on an aluminum wheelchair frame.
“We’re 30 chairs behind on orders, which I guess is a good problem to have," Mike DiDonato says, "but I don’t like to have that problem. I want to build them and get them out.”
DiDonato’s family owns Southbridge Tool. Typically, the company makes metal catwalks, jet engine tools and ladders for water towers. But DiDonato takes the greatest pride in the running wheelchairs used in road races around the world — including Monday's Boston Marathon.
When I ask him why, DiDonato gets teary-eyed.
“We’re changing people’s lives,” DiDonato says. “Every chair that goes out, we know who it goes out to. We pretty much know what issue there may be with them, why they can’t walk, why they need a chair.”
The wheelchairs are designed for riders who cannot push themselves. Some have cerebral palsy, some traumatic brain injuries. Some are quadriplegics.
Each chair is designed to be as comfortable as possible for riders. That includes custom sizing and custom padding. The three-wheeled chairs are also as light as possible for the runners. They use aerodynamic handlebars raised to chest height to push and steer.
During the whole wheelchair-making process, DiDonato develops a personal connection with customers and their parents.
“They know right up front with me that I’m there for them,” DiDonato says. “And that’s how we operate.”
‘We’re Going To Make It For You'
It all started when Dick Hoyt walked into the machine shop.
In the running world, Dick Hoyt and his son Rick are legends. They’ve completed over 1,000 races together, including 32 Boston Marathons with Dick pushing. They’re known as Team Hoyt.
One day, Dick Hoyt told DiDonato that he needed a new wheelchair for Rick. And they needed it fast. The 2010 Boston Marathon was two months away.
“So, I’ll never forget this. Dick’s in front of me and my father’s to my right,” DiDonato says. “My father’s a very old school guy from Italy and he says, ‘Oh, a wheelchair, huh?’ Dick’s like, ‘Yeah, can you do it?’ My father’s getting ready to say, ‘No, not really.’ I just put my hand out, shook Dick’s hand and said, ‘We’re going to make it for you.’”
They made a crude steel wheelchair that didn’t look pretty — but it worked for Team Hoyt.
After that, Dick would come by the shop and suggest design changes. Now, DiDonato and welder Adam Rathburn brainstorm ways to make the chairs better.
“Adam and I have this kind of ritual once or twice a week,” DiDonato says.“Late night, coffee, welding and Led Zeppelin. We crank Zeppelin on the radio and we’re just working here late to catch up and to work on prototype stuff as well.”
Orders come in regularly from around the world. The current model can be taken apart and shipped anywhere. DiDonato expects to make 125 chairs this year. And every customer is like family.
Athletes In Chairs
DiDonato walks into the wheelchair-making shop at Southbridge Tool. It’s an office space filled with running chair parts and padding samples for the part of the manufacturing business that’s now known as Team Hoyt Running Chairs. Rider Nick Draper and runner Ted Painter are there. DiDonato greets each of them with a hug.
Draper and Painter will be racing in Monday's 2017 Boston Marathon. They head out to an empty parking lot to show what that will look like. Painter easily maneuvers the chair and checks in with Nick as they go. He almost looks like he’s sprinting.
Painter turns to Draper and says, “I think he likes the crowd at the Boston Marathon. “It’s just ‘Raaaw!’ the whole way from the beginning to the end. I think that’s what you like most about it, right?"
Draper answers with an enthusiastic, “Yeah!”
I ask Draper how fast he plans to go in Boston.
“Damn fast!” he says.
Painter hopes to push Draper across the finish in under 3 hours. That would be damn fast. And close to a personal best.
DiDonato is a runner, too. He competes with Kyle Brodeur of Charlton. A few years ago, a chance meeting brought them together. Races give DiDonato the best sense of how well the chairs work. But that’s not the main reason he runs. He does it for Brodeur.
DiDonato and Brodeur call themselves Team Unstoppable.
I ask Brodeur how he came up with the name. He answers through a computerized speech device.
“Because I’m unstoppable in everything I do,” Brodeur says. “I have had 27 surgeries to date. But when I’m racing, it makes me feel unstoppable again.”
Almost 20 years ago, Brodeur was left severely injured and wheelchair-bound when his family’s car was hit by a drunk driver. DiDonato talks about how he wants to give Brodeur back a sport.
“Anybody in our chair, they are athletes,” says DiDonato.
Team Unstoppable won’t be on the Boston Marathon course on Monday, but DiDonato will still be following his chairs closely.
This segment aired on April 17, 2017.