The Yale gymnastics team will host its first home meet on Saturday, but the first annual Don Tonry Invitational has a special meaning to anyone who has been part of the Yale gymnastics program since 1962. A lynchpin of Yale gymnastics, Tonry was a coach, an Olympian and an administrator. He died at the age of 78 in May 2013.
“First off, it’s a special weekend because we’re celebrating [coach] Barbara’s husband Don,” captain Morgan Traina ’15 said. “Doing well will be great for the team, but the meet means a lot to Barbara. Everyone is really excited for it. ”
Don Tonry, a New York native, began as a college gymnast at the University of Illinois. In addition to winning the NCAA all-around and team titles in 1956, Tonry competed in the 1960 Olympics in Rome alongside fellow Illinois teammate Abie Grossfeld. Though he started his coaching career at West Point, Tonry came to Yale to take over the gymnastics program in 1962.
When Yale first allowed women to enroll in 1969, Tonry enlisted the help of fellow national champion Barbara Galleher. The two later married. Barbara Tonry began working with the female gymnasts, most of whom were beginners, she said.
“I told [him] I would [help] because the women were not welcome at the very beginning,” Tonry said. “Don took care of them, and I fell in love with them because they were tough. We couldn’t do [much of] anything but we could do it well. We were clean and neat, and we started competing.”
As the program evolved, the women began winning. Though still a club team, they both trained and traveled with the men’s varsity team.
Meanwhile, the men’s team became an Ivy League powerhouse. In the early 1970s, the men won three conference titles and a New England championship and qualified a gymnast to the NCAA Championships.
“We won everything,” Tonry said. “That’s how it all started. We didn’t get paid anything at the beginning, and eventually, they made it into a paying position, and when they made it full-time, I had to make the choice between teaching school and [Yale].”
Tonry chose Yale, and when women’s gymnastics was officially recognized as a varsity team in 1973, she established the program. She has been the coach ever since, guiding the team to 14 Ivy Classic championships.
However, the program’s success was not enough: Men’s gymnastics was dropped in 1980. Don Tonry remained at Yale, coaching a club team, teaching beginner’s gymnastics and helping out with the women’s team.
Barbara Tonry said that her late husband kept coaching even after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. According to Tonry, he coached and spotted from his scooter due to his love of Yale students and players.
This dedication characterized much of Don Tonry’s career after college gymnastics. In addition to coaching, he wrote and illustrated books about gymnastics, one of which is part of a Sports Illustrated series. He was also a prominent gymnastics judge who scored several high-profile competitions, including the World Championships.
But Tonry made time for smaller meets too. He either judged alongside or coached those who now lead programs at Bridgeport, Southern Connecticut State and Rhode Island College — the three teams who will be attending the Don Tonry Invitational.
“That’s why this weekend, the Don Tonry Bulldog Invitational, is in his memory,” Barbara Tonry said. “He was just a fanatic about the sport and the kids here … You didn’t have to be a great gymnast. He taught people who were beginners and was just as enthusiastic about that as any other person.”
To honor Don Tonry, the gymnastics team has a few special plans for the weekend.
In addition to program alumni, who have been invited back to New Haven for a reception following the meet, friends of the Tonrys will be attending the meet. Don Tonry’s brother, Grossfeld and former student John Deary will also be present, according to Barbara Tonry. Grossfeld will be handing out awards that Deary, who now runs a gymnastics supply company, donated.
“Don was outstanding in all the areas of his professional involvement as a competitor, coach, teacher, administrator, author, artist and storyteller,” Grossfeld, one of Tonry’s oldest friends, wrote in a message to the News.
Though Tonry was less involved with the women’s team in the later years of his life, he remained a presence in the gym. Traina recalls him visiting practices, both to see his wife and offer advice to the team.
His passion for the sport was evident, according to Traina.
“He was always smiling, always really encouraging and never had a negative thing to say,” Traina said. “If he had a correction, it was what you could do better next time, not what you did wrong. He was such a positive person and really loved the sport. To see someone who loves it that much is really inspiring.”
In the invitational, the team should be aided by the return of Allison Bushman ’18, who sustained a minor concussion before the first meet of the season. According to Traina, she is most likely to compete on bars and floor.
Yale is coming off a short week, as the closing of Payne Whitney Gymnasium due to weather meant the team could only practice three times. Still, Barbara Tonry said, she has confidence in the team.
“I’m hoping [the team] make[s] a good showing,” Tonry said. “They have done very well the first two competitions, but we’ve still made mistakes that we’re trying to overcome. We need to be fighting for every little tenth we can get, because that’s how meets are won, by hundredths of a point. We need to just be clean and hit everything we’re supposed to.”
The Don Tonry Bulldog Invitational begins in Payne Whitney at 1 p.m. on Saturday.