Forty-four years after the Yale women’s gymnastics team was formed, the Bulldogs are led by the same coach as they were the day the program started: Barbara Galleher Tonry, who has guided the program to 14 Ivy League titles.
To follow the arc of the Yale’s women’s gymnastics team is to trace the career of Tonry. Through six Yale athletic directors and five presidents, Tonry has held the reins for one of Yale’s most storied and successful teams. Her time at Yale is a tale of homemade uniforms and hall of fames, of glass ceilings working to keep her team down and podiums constantly raising them up.
With four and a half decades to remember, the 45th varsity team is one she is particularly proud of as they continue to prepare to host the Ivy League championships on Feb. 25.
“This team stands on the shoulders of giants, 45 years of hardworking and talented gymnasts,” Tonry said. “I am so proud of this team with so many freshmen contributing to the final team score along with our upperclassmen. They have set many event records and I know they will make the alumni proud at the Ivy League Classic Championship.”
Tonry first arrived on Yale’s campus in 1969, the first year Yale welcomed a coed class. She had been invited to run the women’s club team by Don Tonry, whom she would marry in 1973. Side by side, the two built one of the nation’s preeminent programs.
“When women were admitted to Yale, Don, my late husband, started a basic gymnastic class, although he was coaching a men’s team,” said Tonry, “It was a tough time for women at Yale as they were not completely welcomed by all. Don didn’t have a chauvinistic bone in his body and only cared about helping anyone, no matter the caliber, learn the sport of gymnastics.”
Don ran the men’s team while Barbara led the women’s. At the outset, the women’s team was only given a club designation, but in 1972, Title IX was passed and a year later Barbara’s team was granted varsity status.
For Tonry, Title IX was the first step in an arduous process of convincing the Yale athletic administration of the value and merits of women’s sports.
“Title IX was so welcome as it was difficult to have anyone understand that women liked to compete as well as the men,” Tonry said. “The men in later years learned to respect how hard women trained and competed. Once we had female administrators things were better and a lot of later male administrators supported the women’s programs.”
For six seasons the Tonrys coached alongside one another. Like his eventual wife, Don Tonry steered his team to great successes: Between 1974–1980, he won three Ivy league men’s gymnastics titles.
But in 1980, Yale downgraded men’s gymnastics to club status. Nevertheless, after the team folded, Don Tonry remained a positive influence on Yale’s gymnastics team and its athletics at large.
“Don continued to coach the men as a club and as he was the associate director of physical education at Payne Whitney,” Barbara Tonry said. “He coached the women when he was asked to help and continued to teach a basic class for anyone of any level. He loved to see people learn the sport.”
For Tonry, the path to success was riddled with obstacles at the start. She received no salary, and supplemented her work for Yale by teaching in New Haven and coaching at both a local junior and high school.
Moreover, the team itself began with little, if any, funding. Yale did not provide equipment or uniforms for the team, so Tonry bought her own leotards and sewed on Yale’s logo. They practiced and competed on the small eighth floor of Payne Whitney Gymnasium. The team did not receive recruits and had to pull from members of the student body who had some sort of background in gymnastics — and in several cases, those without any prior experience.
But over time, the program grew. And now, after building from the ground up, Tonry can look with pride at the accomplishments her team has accrued. From 1977–2005, the team never went more than five years without winning an Ancient Eight title. Tonry’s squad particularly dominated the 80s, winning the league in 1981, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1987 and 1989.
The long-term success of the team has long served as a draw in recruiting. But more than anything, it is the story of the struggle to start the program, and the grind in which its original competitors and coach embarked upon, which motivates recruits to pick Yale, and ultimately, to perform for the program, according to Megan Ryan ’18.
“Coach Barbara always tells us stories of how the program was built, and we had to fight to be a team on campus,” Ryan said. “This motivates us to do our best to honor the people who fought so hard so we could have the opportunity to compete for Yale.”
This current program has won a league title in each decade since its inception — the current decade remains the only outlier. But the team is confident it will fill in the trophy gap before 2020 — maybe even this year.
“We have an extremely talented and hardworking team this year, including six wonderful freshmen which make up over a third of our team,” captain Tatiana Winkelman ’17 said. “This is the largest team the program has ever had, and as such, we have an incredible amount of depth on each event. The Yale gymnastics program has been on the rise in recent years, and we are looking to build off the successes of last season and to have another record-breaking season.”
In May 2013, at the age of 78, Don Tonry passed away. In his honor, the Yale gymnastics team now hosts the Don Tonry Bulldog Invitational. The event has run every year since his death.
But the legacy of the Tonry coaches is still being written. Barbara has pressed on and now, in her 45th year, she will seek her 15th Ancient Eight title in her 41st Ivy Classic.