As Tommy Shimoda skated into position to start the 500-meter medal race at the 2017 Special Olympics World Games, he spotted a large American flag, loosely hanging on a railing 20 rows up from the ice.
This was Shimoda’s fourth and final speed-skating race at the World Games, held in Schladming, Austria in March. He looked excited and didn’t show any signs of nerves as he skated in front of a crowd of nearly 300 spectators.
When he saw his mother, Barb, standing in front of the American flag, the two locked eyes as she gave him a thumbs-up.
For some, a thumbs-up is a meaningless “good job,” but for Tommy, a 24-year-old autistic and non-verbal Special Olympics athlete from Chicago’s Mount Greenwood neighborhood, it means the world — and has become a tradition for the pair every time Tommy competes or accomplishes a feat.
“When my mom gives me the thumbs-up, I know she’s watching me and I want to do my best,” Tommy said through a portable communication device about the size of an iPad. “I feel happy and I’m proud.”
“It doesn’t matter what venue he’s in,” Barb said. “We find each other, and then when he knows where I am, he’s secure. He’s like, ‘OK, everybody is in their place.’ And then he takes off.”
As the four speed skaters lined up at the starting line, Tommy returned gave thumbs-up to his mother and placed the edge of his right skate against the starting line.
Shimoda, the only Chicago athlete to qualify to compete in Special Olympics World Games, soared to the front after the horn and never looked back.
During the four-and-a-half laps around the rink, Shimoda never lost the lead. He glided across the finish line with the time of 1:11.035 — knocking four seconds off his semifinals race time.
Besides that gold in the 500 meters, Shimoda also won a bronze in the 777 meter race earlier in the Olympics.
But this two-week European vacation was only the start to Shimoda’s storybook year.
Next month, Shimoda will receive another thumbs-up for his achievements over the years. He’ll be the first Special Olympics athlete inducted into the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame; the ceremony is Oct. 2 at Wintrust Arena.
Shimoda, who has played the last 12 years with the Chicago Blackhawks Special Hockey organization, will be inducted in the same class as one of his favorite athletes, Blackhawks forward Jonathan Toews.
Shimoda said he’s honored to be inducted in the same class with White Sox broadcaster Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts and former Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood.
“I am happy for my family. They are excited about the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame induction,” Shimoda said. “I know that it means I’ve worked hard and had a lot of fun. I want all my friends to work hard and have fun so that they can go to the Hall of Fame someday, too.”
More on the Special Olympics:
And besides all that, there was another milestone in July: Shimoda became the only Special Olympics athlete from Illinois to receive an honorary ESPY.
Shimoda’s coach, Lisa Muscrone, who has known him for 17 years, had only one word to describe the past year: “amazing.”
“It’s just one thing after the next,” Muscrone said. “It’s an award we never thought was possible — an ESPY award. The Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame. They’re are all things that are paving the way for other athletes and that they’re finally being recognized.”
Shimoda has been playing sports at Mount Greenwood Park, 3721 W. 111th St., since he was 7 years old. One year later, he joined Special Olympics Chicago.
Since then, Shimoda has become one of the most accomplished athletes in Special Olympics Chicago, founded in 1968. Although he started as a swimmer, Shimoda now participates in more than 20 sports, including swimming, snowshoeing, horseback riding, basketball and volleyball.
Over the years, sports have played an important role in Shimoda’s life.
“He’s in his environment when he’s in sports. And when he has an opportunity for a challenge, he wants to meet that challenge. So, he’s always striving to do his best on the court,” Barb Shimoda said. “[Playing sports] lets Tommy use up his endless energy and be part of a team — be a part of a team of friends that accept him.”
Follow me on Twitter: @madkenney