Born Thomas Joseph Michael Flubacher in Paterson, New Jersey, he was the second of three sons born to Elmer and Marion Flubacher. At a young age he was befriended by Gene and Hazel Waddell. Gene was a vaudevillian acrobat, and his wife was a dancer. They fueled Tom's interest in gymnastics and dancing. His closeness to the Waddells led to his decision to change his last name while he was in college, after his natural parents' divorce.
Tom committed himself to the study of medicine after the death of a close friend in college who was following a pre-med course. Dr. Waddell went on to hold a research position at Stanford Medical School, and later served as chief physician for San Francisco's public first aid clinic. He specialized in infectious diseases.
He was drafted into the army during Vietnam War, which he publicly criticised. He was threatened with a court martial by the U.S. Army for voicing support for the raised fist protest by two African American athletes at a medal ceremony.
Tom played college football, was a gymnast, and excelled in track and field. He placed sixth in the decathlon at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics. In 1976, he came out with his partner Charles Deaton in the "Couples" section of American People magazine - they were the first gay men to be featured there.
In 1980, Tom proposed the idea of a Gay Olympics; with others, he founded the Gay Games (the name change was due to a lawsuit by the U.S.O.C. over the Olympics trademark; Waddell had to mortgage his house to pay the legal fees).
The first two Gay Games were held in his adopted home town of San Francisco, in 1982 and 1986. Tom realized one of his lifelong dreams when his daughter Jessica was born in 1983. He and Jessica's mother, Sara, had met in San Francisco while preparing the first Gay Games. In the early 1980's, the idea of a gay man and a lesbian deciding to have a child was not a common occurrence. During the pregnancy, Tom began a journal that was intended to express the deep love that this father felt for his child.
Four weeks before the 1986 Gay Games, Tom was diagnosed as having pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. However, he competed at the games in track and field and won a gold medal in the javelin throw. He died of an AIDS-related complications at age 49.