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Chicago Shimpo
Special Olympics Gold, Bronze
Speed Skater Tommy Shimoda
Honored as Chicago Sports Hall of Famer
- Interview with the Shimoda Family

Tommy Shimoda, son of Chicago dentist Dr. Thomas Shimoda, was recently inducted into the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2017 after winning the gold and bronze medals in speed skating in the Special Olympics held in Austria back in March. The formal induction ceremony will be held at the McCormick Square’s Wintrust Arena in Chicago on October 2.

Shimoda, 24, won the gold medal in the 500-meter race at 1:11.035 and the bronze in the 777-meter race at 1:56.903. He was the only athlete from the city of Chicago to qualify to compete in the Games. In July, he was also awarded the Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly (ESPY) Award, which is presented to individual athletes and sports teams for exceptional performance.

Shimoda was diagnosed with autism when he was a child, and cannot communicate verbally. During a recent interview along with his parents, Dr. Shimoda and Barbara Shimoda, Shimoda answered questions via an advanced voice output communication device, which he uses to communicate on a daily basis.

Q: How did Tommy start playing sports?

Barbara: He was a very energetic child, full of life, and he liked water. So the first thing we did was teach him how to swim.
I took him to the Mount Greenwood Park near our house to take a swimming lesson. That was the first sport for him – swimming. He was about 6 years old.

Tommy (via the voice output communication device): I now play more than 15 sports. I do gymnastics, basketball, soccer, ice hockey, bowling and many more. I started skating when I was 12 at the Mount Greenwood Park.

Q: Barbara, did you recognize his talent in sports right away?

Barbara: I recognized that Tommy likes to be active. He likes to keep busy. When you give him a task, he stays at it. So playing sports was just a natural fit for him.
It’s like he plays soccer and baseball on Wednesdays, swimming and basketball on Thursdays and ice hockey on Saturdays. He also plays in the Chicago Blackhawks Special Team for athletes with special needs. This is his 13th season.

Q: How did he qualify for the Special Olympics?

Barbara: If I may say so as his mother, he is a very fast skater. He won all the three qualifying events. The USA team gave the state of Illinois only one speed skating slot, and Tommy was just lucky to win that spot.

Q: Tommy, you first won the bronze at the 777-meter race. Did you then feel that you must win the 500-meter, which you ended up winning the gold? How did you feel?

Tommy: Speed skating. Fast.

Thomas: In the past, Tommy let his friend win in a race because he didn’t want to beat him, didn’t want to make him sad. Now he was representing the U.S., so I said to him: “You have to skate fast; you have to try to win.”

Barbara: In that race, Tommy competed against another American skater. The coach said Tommy is a strong starter and his competitor is a strong finisher. Tommy shut out the competitor, skating like a rocket. He likes a short track, so it was a good race for him.

Q: Tommy, you made it. How did you feel when you won the gold?

Tommy: I was very happy when I won the gold and the bronze in the world games. I know I did my best.

Q: Did you all go to Austria to see the games?

Thomas: Barbara, my other son Clark, and his girlfriend did. I stayed home and worked to pay for their trip – only the participating athletes get to travel for free.

Barbara: We were in Austria for two whole weeks. Tommy traveled with the Team USA, and it was part of the challenge for him, to travel with strangers and take care of himself, completely separated from his parents for full two weeks.
They took the athletes and their families for sightseeing tours - to a candy factory, castles, and so on – again, separately. Everything was beautiful and absolutely impeccable. It’s a very beautiful organization, Special Olympics. They treated the athletes so well.

Q: What is your family support like for him?

Barbara: Tommy is a very nice young man. If he likes doing something or going somewhere, we coordinate a schedule so he can do it. We are lucky we have only two children; it’s easy for us to coordinate. Sometimes I drop him off and pick him up, sometimes Dad drives him and I pick him up. The arrangement is that one of us is always available for whoever needs us. Clark is now in college so we don’t have to worry about him so much.
At home, we put up a large calendar on the wall to keep track all of Tommy’s sport events. Our whole life revolves around the calendar. Right, Tommy?

Tommy: Yes.

Thomas: Barbara has all the credit because she found out different sports I didn’t know anything about. All I knew was judo and wrestling.
Our friend, who just passed away, taught Clark and Tommy how to skate. That’s where they got the first experience on ice. Then Barbara took Tommy to the Mount Greenwood Park. Then took him to the Blackhawks Special Team. So she deserves all the credit.

Barbara: I think that was a team effort by our family. Clark pitches into it, too, driving to hockey practice and helping the coach. He enjoys it on ice, too.

Q: How did Tommy overcome autism?

Barbara: It was his energy level in which his autism became most evident. If your child has a lot of energy, then you have to find a way to channel that energy. Tommy needed assistance to communicate. The biggest challenge for us was to find the best way to help him communicate.
There are many autistic children who don’t have the ability to speak, and the voice output communication device Tommy now uses wasn’t developed easily. Unfortunately, they don’t want to invest in devices like this, or there are not many speech pathologists to train patients in using such devices. We had to go through a lot of different levels of programing, different levels of education and change, until we finally realized Tommy was a professional user of this device (which is the size of an iPhone). He can program his own device. Now Tommy can talk [through this device], and that makes him smile and happy because it opens up the world to him. We are now able to communicate, people understand what he is trying to say, and he can use it to order food at a restaurant or ask for what he wants at a store.

Thomas: [when Tommy was a little boy] the sign language wasn’t right for us – nobody seemed to understand it. The earlier communication device was this laptop-size machine that cost $50,000 and was still primitive. A speech pathologist helped us find this streamlined device he uses now; its technology is only four and half years old. The previous machine he used weighed 7 pounds and was cumbersome to carry around all day.

Q: Tommy, tell us about your future plans.

Tommy: Water polo.

Barbara: That’s for the next summer, right? Didn’t you mention gymnastics?

Tommy: Yes.

Barbara: It’s all up to him as to what to challenge next. If you give him a new task, either new sport or something to do, he is on it. Like water polo he started this summer. It was his first experience in the sport. So, anything new is always a nice experience.
Tommy is also learning horseback riding. He started it when he was 19. He volunteered to take care of the horses at the barn for seven years, so the people there are all waiting for him to come back. He has competed in two competitions so far, though he couldn’t train last year because he was training for the Special Olympics.
If I take it from my son’s perspective, I would say, for all of us, that we want to continue to grow, we want to have new challenges and experiences. I think that sports of all levels give Tommy an opportunity. We hope that many of his friends will follow his path.

The Story of the Shimoda Family

Tommy’s parents, Dr. Thomas Shimoda and Barbara Shimoda, met through a mutual friend when they were dental school students. One day, Thomas fixed Barbara’s car. Eventually they got married.
With a great- grandfather who was a doctor and samurai in Japan, Thomas thought he was going to be a dentist. When he was in high school, he came to know for the first time about the incarceration of the Japanese Americans during World War II. That new knowledge made him want to learn law, to understand why America could imprison its citizens.
After becoming a dentist, Thomas confided with his wife about his dream of becoming a lawyer. She shared his dream, and both of them became lawyers.
Currently, Thomas runs a dental office in Chicago while Barbara practices law.

Tommy Shimoda in a race

Tommy Shimoda holds his Gold Medal

The Shimoda family