Speedskating the perfect outlet for Tommy Shimoda

U.S. speedskater Tommy Shimoda communicates by using a "talker," an iPad-type device that allows him to converse with people by using a series of visual symbols. Special Olympics

GRAZ, Austria -- U.S. speedskater Tommy Shimoda had yet to take the ice in his red, white and blue skinsuit, but his mother was already in tears.

Sitting in the stands at IceStadium Graz-Liebenau on Tuesday, an American flag draped over the railing behind her and gripping a red, white and blue pompom, Barb Shimoda talked about the day 19 years earlier when she learned her 5-and-a-half-year-old son would never be able to speak.

"You'd think that would be awful when someone says that to you," she said, breaking down. "But look at where he is."

Where he was as he skated to the starting line was one minute, 56 seconds away from a bronze medal in the 777 meters at the Special Olympics World Games, a personal best. But then, every day is seemingly a personal best for the 24-year-old from Chicago, who communicates through a "talker," an augmented communications device that resembles a mini-iPad and allows him to converse with people by using a series of visual symbols to talk for him.

The talkers have been updated over the years. But for a kid who has competed in virtually every sport offered to him -- 14 this year alone -- expressing himself is not a problem.

"He's kind, sweet, so helpful, well-liked, a big pleaser -- his teammates love him," said his Chicago Park District coach Lisa Mulcrone, who made the trip from Chicago to Austria and was also in tears before Tuesday's competition began. "I've known him since he was 6. I can't believe this."

Tommy, who is autistic, was 7 when he got his first talker, about the same time he followed his younger brother Clark into hockey and began speedskating. "And it was like the world started exploding," his mother said. "He found out what to do with all that energy he had and how to get ideas across, and people actually started listening to him. That's a powerful thing when someone listens to you."

Ask Tommy what he likes about his sport and he has the answer already programmed into his talker. "I like speedskating because I go fast," he said.

But therein lies something of a misconception, his mother said. Watching Tommy zip around the ice, a friend once commented to Barb, "He must be a great runner."

"But it's not that," his mother said. "On the ice, he can go crazy and skate around and there are no pedestrians to run into, no dogs, no cracks in the sidewalk. He's safe there."

Barb Shimoda, a former Cook County state attorney, vows to keep her son feeling safe even after Special Olympics Illinois decided to drop funding for speedskating, figure skating and cross-country skiing beginning in 2018, citing low interest. Currently there are 19 speedskaters in the state. In 2015, there were just 21 states and the District of Columbia that had Special Olympics speedskating.

Tracy Hilliard, vice president for Special Olympics Illinois, said cost was not a factor; in surveying their state agencies to gauge interest, they could not justify keeping the three sports going.

"It's more the number of athletes competing," Hilliard said. "It was getting to the point in these sports where we didn't have enough athletes to have divisions."

But for those Special Olympics athletes who, like Tommy, feel safe or love speed, it hardly matters.

Barb Needham, the U.S. World Games speedskating coach, said she has a skater who is only interested in figure skating. And in places where there are no programs in place, there is little chance of attracting new kids to sports like speedskating.

"We've fought the problem for years," she said. "People think they just can't do it."

Needham said one of the main issues, after finding rinks and being able to afford ice time, is getting coaches. A Special Olympics speedskating coach for 35 years, as well as the director of a home healthcare agency, she and her husband had their first three skaters stand up at their wedding.

"It's hard," she said, wiping away tears. "I understand where [Special Olympics Illinois is] coming from, but it's still hard."

One option is to find existing speedskating programs and competitions and persuade them to include Special Olympics athletes. But that means families paying their own way.

"I have no ill will because how lucky is my son as the only Chicagoan in speedskating," Barb Shimoda said. "But if Special Olympics Illinois does not want to host a speedskating and figure skating competition, what you'll find is a lot a lot of us parents will find a way to bring skating to our children. When you're a mother, you'll do whatever you have to do for your child.

"He found out what to do with all that energy he had and how to get ideas across, and people actually started listening to him. That's a powerful thing when someone listens to you." Barb Shimoda on her son, Tommy

"If Illinois doesn't want to adopt us, we'll be orphans. We've had way bigger obstacles to overcome in all our lives."

For Tommy, communication was not necessarily one of them. As a toddler, he managed to get his point across. But when a detective in Barb's office recommended speech therapists at St. Xavier University on Chicago's South Side, the Shimodas were optimistic.

"He said they had his son talking like crazy within a year," Barb recalled. "Ten years later we weren't talking, but we were communicating."

U.S. World Games coach Ken Hart said there is very little Shimoda doesn't understand and can't implement when he is being coached. "Because he's quiet, you don't know what he knows," Hart said. "But he knows a lot."

Clark Shimoda, 21, said he had no trouble reading his brother's body language when the two were growing up. And he has little trouble reading him now.

"Normally, his first thought is always to help other people, to pass to other people in basketball and hockey, to be unselfish. But he has become so much more self-aware from this experience," Clark said. "I can see from his face that for the first time in his life, it's, 'Hey, this is about me.' Genuinely, I have never seen him smile like he is smiling now."

Tommy also smiled as he rounded the second turn of each lap of his bronze medal-winning performance Tuesday, unable to keep his eyes off the U.S. cheering section and his mother, in particular, as they waved and cheered him on.

"I told Barb that he was doing that and that it was probably slowing him down," Needham said, "and she said, 'It doesn't matter where I go. Wherever I am, he finds me.'"