Athlete Spotlight: Tom Adimari
Tennis player Tom Adimari has always been a top competitor. Just ask US Open and Wimbledon Champion Lleyton Hewitt. In 2001, Adimari—a natural-born athlete who has autism—competed in a unified doubles match during a Special Olympics clinic held just before the US Open. His partner? Former professional player-turned-coach Roger Rasheed. His opponent? Future-world No. 1 Hewitt. During one point, Adimari smashed an overhead that flew well above Hewitt’s head.
“Lleyton ducked!” Adimari’s father Phil says with a laugh.
After the match, the Special Olympics athletes at the clinic participated in a Q&A with Hewitt. “I asked him something like, ‘When would be the best time to rush the net?’” Tom recalls. “And he said to me, ‘Well, mate, you did a pretty good job with that, you didn’t seem to have any problems! You almost killed me with that shot you hit!’"
Of course, Tom has excelled in just about every sport he’s played. He began competing with Special Olympics New York when he was around seven years old and promptly racked up big results in multiple disciplines. By the time he was a teenager he owned around 15 gold medals in everything from floor hockey to volleyball to track and field. One of those medals, which he earned winning the 50-meter freestyle at a childhood swim meet, was presented to him—as a surprise—by none other than famed Special Olympics Founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Phil is still disappointed he didn’t have a video camera with him that day. (“It was a big thrill for our family,” he says.)
In his teens, however, Tom discovered tennis, and the rest was history—literally—as he decided to put everything else on hold to focus exclusively on the sport. The reason, for Tom, was simple. He really liked the individual aspect of the game, and he enjoyed the thrill of one-on-one competition.
Decades since that decision, Tom has yet to put down his racquet. Maximizing his potential on the court, he’s captured an additional 15 or so gold medals at various Special Olympics tennis tournaments across the country over the years. In 2015, Tom was one of 6,500 athletes from 177 countries competing at the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles, California. There, he accomplished what he considers to be one of his greatest athletic achievements: taking home the silver medal in the doubles tournament and the gold medal in singles. He was the only male American tennis player to medal in the latter event and displayed some Andy Murray-esque variety in claiming the victory.
“The last point, my opponent tried to hit a smash past me,” Tom remembers. “I lobbed it back and it went over his head and landed about a foot inside the court. My opponent was maybe a foot taller than me, [too]. It was very exciting—I was jumping up and down.”
Just after that tournament in 2015, Tom began working with Coach Elyse Hintzen at the Yonkers Tennis Center in Yonkers, N.Y. Hintzen—who also served as a high school tennis coach before retiring in 2009—says she came to Special Olympics New York through “a side door.” She had been officiating a regional volleyball tournament for the organization and happened to meet Ellen Pikula, the Special Olympics New York Program Director for the Hudson Valley Region. Pikula knew that the coach of Tom’s program would be moving out of state and invited Hintzen to watch some of the athletes play at a tennis event.
“I was just blown away by their talent and their commitment,” Hintzen says. “When they asked me to take over the program, I said yes without hesitation.”
Coaches like Hintzen are a cornerstone of the organization, says Robyn Armando, Vice President of Marketing and Branding for Special Olympics New York.
“We couldn’t do what we do without people like Elyse,” Armando says. “It’s a volunteer position. They dedicate so much of their time. Their consistent willingness and loyalty to athletes like Tom...it’s really unmatched. We adore Elyse and the work that she’s doing. Without her, we wouldn’t have the tennis programs, the trainings, the competition. It’s a snowball effect. We’re just very grateful.”
Phil notes that Hintzen has really helped take Tom’s game to the next level since they began working together.
“We have seen improvements that we never saw before,” Phil says. “After all the years he’s been playing tennis, she started working with him and spotted things that we didn’t even know he needed work on! Once Elyse came on, you could see a big difference in Tom and all the athletes, in the way they practice, the way they learn.”
Hintzen has gotten just as much out of working with Tom. “It’s the best time of my week to work with an individual like Tom,” she says. “He’s dedicated. He works hard from the moment he gets to the court. Even before we get on the court! You see him stretching out as soon as he walks into the building. He works right up until the end of every practice, and he does the same during matches. He is focused, he is determined. He shows improvement every year. It’s just nice to see somebody who gives that much of himself to the sport.”
Beyond his work ethic, Hintzen says Tom possesses really strong fundamentals, including a consistent serve and backhand. She is particularly impressed with his ability to move forward.
“He’s very good at rushing the net,” she says. “And he’s very aggressive with his overheads.” With a laugh, she adds, “Sometimes during drills I, like Lleyton Hewitt, have to duck.”
But perhaps Tom’s greatest strength is his resilience. He never gives up. It’s something Phil says he’s always seen within his son, and it’s precisely the reason why Tom has procured over 30 gold medals throughout his life.
“It’s what every good athlete has to have: the will to compete, win, lose or draw,” Phil says. “What Tom has learned over time is that if he loses a point, forget about it. The next point is the one that counts. But he’s always pushed himself to be the best he can. We’re very proud of him.”
Tom displayed the full extent of his resilience in 2017, when he tore his achilles tendon during a match at an Invitational in Virginia. The specialist who examined him estimated the injury would keep him off court for two years. After Tom had surgery to repair the tendon, he was told he’d need to wear a boot for at least the next six months.
“Meanwhile, Tom started doing physical therapy,” Phil recalls. “And he never missed a beat. He was told, ‘When you go home, this is what you have to do everyday.’ And he did it religiously. Three times a day, every day.”
A month after surgery, Tom and his family visited the doctor for a check-up. “The doctor took off the boot, looked at me, flipped the boot in the air and said, ‘He doesn’t need this anymore!’ From six months, Tom [only] needed the boot for one month,” Phil says. “And then from [being told it would be] two years [until he could play again], he was back on the court in seven months. He just has that determination. When he makes up his mind, there’s no stopping him.
Two years later, Tom headed back to the very same tournament in Virginia—and returned with the gold medal. Hintzen thinks it’s easily one of Tom’s greatest on-court accomplishments since she began coaching him.
“It just goes to show how diligent he is and how much tennis means to him,” she says.
Tom credits his success to a number of factors. “I keep a positive attitude, believe in myself and never give up,” he says. “And I just work on things [in matches] that I work on with my coach.”
With all his accomplishments in the sport, what’s Tom’s next goal? The limit is as high as all the many shots that have flown over his opponents’ heads.
“I just want to get better at my strokes and keep winning tournaments,” he says. “And keep having confidence in myself.”
USTA Eastern is proud to support adaptive programs like Tom’s. To learn more about our Diversity & Inclusion Grants click here.
To learn more about Special Olympics New York click here.