COLUMBIA — Among the hundreds of athletes who converged on MU for the Special Olympics Missouri State Summer Games for the weekend, two participants stand out because of what they are: a couple.
Julia Dyer, 13, and Tyrus Cunliffe, 14, have known each other for almost a decade. They met in a classroom, when Cunliffe was a first-grader and Dyer a kindergartner.
“Ever since then they have been attached at the hip,” says Gloria Dyer, Julia’s mother. And they now live two minutes from each other.
Cunliffe was diagnosed with high-functioning autism when he was 4 years old; Dyer has cerebral palsy. Each has a calming influence on the other. Cunliffe has his strongest social interactions with Dyer, and Dyer demonstrates almost constant affection toward Cunliffe, often with unexpected hugs.
Recently, Cunliffe’s father, Chip, asked his son what his “lifelong goal” was. Cunliffe quickly responded, “To marry Julia.”
“Just so I can take better care of her … just so I can be with her more,” Cunliffe says. “It’s one of my favorite things to do.”
“Oh my gosh, I’m going to cry,” said Gloria Dyer, as Cunliffe’s words are read back to her.
For both families, this is their first time coming to the state games, after having competed in local Special Olympics the past two years.
On Saturday, Cunliffe competed in the 100-meter dash, earning a first-place medal, and a silver medal in the running long jump. On Sunday, Cunliffe will end his weekend with the softball throw competition with Dyer. She will also compete in the 50-meter run and the standing long jump.
Cunliffe’s second passion is his love of sports. According to his mother, Cunliffe will frequently wake up at 4:30 a.m. just to scour websites for sports scores. A fan of any team in Kansas City, he also follows everything from MLS soccer to Russian hockey leagues.
“It’s an obsession with me,” says Cunliffe, who began drawing sports logos at the age of 5. “I don’t know why.”
While Cunliffe enjoys following his favorite athletes and teams on ESPN, this weekend he is enjoying being an athlete. Impressing his girlfriend is an added bonus.
“Yeah I was trying to win (for her),” says Cunliffe while holding his 100-meter gold medal. “She was like ‘Oh congratulations.'”
Suddenly, Cunliffe’s eyes widen. He looks down at his medal and back up.
“I forgot to hug her,” he says softly. He is quiet for a moment more before beginning to say something else. But his words are stopped. Without warning Dyer walks over and throws her arms around Cunliffe, hugging him tight.
“Oh, she’s got me,” he says with a smile, closing his eyes and resting his chin on her shoulder.