Sharing Their Love for SOOR
Duane and Tammy Cleary, celebrating a 25th wedding anniversary, are longtime ambassadors for Special Olympics Oregon
Special Olympics Oregon, founded in 1972, serves athletes with intellectual disabilities year-round through life changing sport programs. Participants gain self-confidence through physical fitness, increasing social competency while experiencing courage and joy, and participate in a sharing of skills and friendship with families and other Special Olympics athletes. Tammy and Duane Cleary, married 25 years in July 2023, exemplify what Special Olympics Oregon (SOOR) is truly all about.
Tammy first learned of Special Olympics programming when she moved to Oregon from California in the 1990’s. As she said, “had I known it was available earlier, I would have started earlier!” She is a self-professed ‘horse fanatic’ and was immediately drawn to the equestrian program, available through SOOR until the mid-90’s. Said Tammy, “horses are a wavelength to something I could feel and pet, ride and show, have control and learn from.” It also helped her gain confidence and get rid of self-doubt. As she said. “I worried I wouldn’t be able to do this, I didn’t know I’d fit in or if people would like me.”
That fear was unwarranted, and most especially after the first encounter with Duane. It was love at first sight.
Her aunt was the first to spot him at an equestrian event, coming out of a tack room. Said Tammy “when my aunt first saw him, she said to me ‘you’re going to marry him!’” He immediately became Tammy’s helper, which is true to form for Special Olympics athletes. As Tammy said “Special Olympics athletes help one another. We root on all athletes in competition.”
It was Duane’s turn for a dose of self-doubt upon meeting Tammy, questioning whether she’d be interested in him. She’d had two boyfriends previously, but, as she said, “none matched him.” She was just getting out of a previous relationship when she met Duane. “He (the previous boyfriend) and Duane had a staring contest at an event. Duane won,” said Tammy, laughing.
It was at the final practice for a World Games equestrian competition when Duane leaned over and told her he loved her. A marriage proposal followed while they were dancing at a gym during a post track and field social. She couldn’t give him an answer right away, being in a bit of shock, and her friend, within earshot, gave her a jab and said, “just say yes!”
However, Duane first had to contend with questions from Tammy’s mom and dad. “We had to wait four years,” said Tammy, “I was only 21 when he asked me.” They married in 1998 on July 25th, at a military house in Lake Oswego. Preparations included attending a bridal show, where when Tammy spotted the bridal gown she would wear on her wedding day, she “almost bit my finger off. I saw that dress, and that was it,” she said.
Duane and Tammy are multi-talented athletes in many sports. She has participated in swimming, gymnastics, track (including shot put and long jump) and ice skating. The Cleary’s competed together in a national ice-skating competition at Lloyd Center, skating to Beauty and the Beast.
Duane has a unique position as one of the few athletes who hold a gold medal in every competition, five to six sports, available each year for Special Olympics Oregon. He enjoys basketball and track the most and has raced in both the Portland marathon and the Boston marathon in 1986, being one of the first Special Olympics athletes to compete. “I hit a wall at mile 21,” he said, “and my partner helped me push through it after I suffered a leg injury in a warmup the day before. I kept running as people were cheering. I came in late, and Coach Mike Johnson took his medal off in the end to give it to me.”
Both Cleary’s are ideal employees. Duane has been with Albertsons for 25 years, and Tammy has been with Columbia Sportswear for 24 years, at the Lake Oswego outlet. Duane said, “I have a few more years until I retire.” Duane also was the first athlete to serve on the board of directors from 1998-2004 and worked on the Special Olympics Oregon staff in the late 80’s, at a warehouse that shipped Nike shoes to every state and country.
They share a true love for the Special Olympics Oregon community, “we always make friends, so many friends,” Tammy said. She has a special appreciation for her track coach, Cindy Miguel, who she has known for 19 years. “Cindy can get me through things when others can’t.” said Tammy.
“We have worked together as coach and athlete for so long and have over come so many challenges together, said Cindy, “we’ve developed a strong trust that makes being vulnerable safe for Tammy. It’s humbling and pure joy to see in Tammy what she sometimes doesn’t see in herself. As a coach, watching an athlete experientially grow courage and maturity in sports is powerful under any circumstances, and immeasurable in times of difficulty. I love Tammy’s tenacity, devotion to achieving personal goals, and resilience in the face of the unexpected. In Special Olympics sports, Tammy has grown self-advocacy, a strong voice of integrity and agency with a desire to serve others. As a coach, I am beyond proud of her and love celebrating all these successes with more to come, I am sure.”
Jean Hansen, VP of School Partnerships and Outreach at Special Olympics Oregon, has also been an instrumental figure in Tammy and Duane’s lives. Duane and Tammy have been global messengers for the organization and say Jean makes it ‘effortless’ for the Cleary’s to feel very involved.
She asked them once pre-competition to say the Special Olympics Oath together, going back and forth with the words: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me brave in the attempt,” and they ended together in unison, “let the games begin!”
Said Jean, “they’ve always been such amazing ambassadors because they always give back and share with others. They used their platform to invite others to participate in and share in the joy of Special Olympics. Whether it is as an athlete, Unified partner, coach, board member, Local Program management team or day of event volunteer, Duane and Tammy have let others know there is a place for them in the Special Olympics movement. They certainly have been incredible role models for all the ways others can have a place, a role and be included.”
Special Olympics athletes are a tight community. As Tammy said “we are not handicapped. We are intellectuals. We all have our differences. Labels are not who we are as people. We’re people first.” Said Duane, “I believe every athlete like us can do anything in the world of sport. We prove the value of hard work and never giving up.
Asked how they have made it twenty-five years in marriage, a milestone for any married couple, and Tammy said: “it’s easy. Just love.”