Courtesy of Yale Athletics

The Yale women’s gymnastics team has been around for almost 50 years, and head coach Barbara Tonry has led the program for its entire existence.

Tonry has served under a combined six different Yale presidents and athletic directors and has won 16 Ivy League Championships. Her coaching history is the program’s history, and since assuming her role as head coach in 1973, Tonry has captured a spot in the U.S. Gymnastics Federation Hall of Fame.

With no competitions for the Bulldogs this year, Tonry reflected on her beginnings with Yale gymnastics and the nearly half-century since.

“I remember when I first met the girls. … I fell in love,” Tonry said.

Tonry’s story at Yale began with a phone call from then-boyfriend and soon to be husband, the late Don Tonry — who coached the men’s varsity gymnastics team from 1974 to 1980, when the program was demoted to club status. “Without Don, there is no gymnastics at Yale,” Tonry said.

Yale now hosts and competes in an annual tournament called the Don Tonry Invitational, which the Bulldogs won last February.

Don and Barbara Tonry (Photo: Courtesy of Yale Athletics)

After a bit of convincing, she packed up her bags and moved out to New Haven, where upon meeting the athletes, she became “captivated by their tenacity.” Yet Tonry and the gymnastics team faced many challenges in becoming the formidable competitor that it is today.

“I think what makes Barb so successful is her confidence and her belief in everything about her program,” current Yale gymnastics captain Charlotte Cooperman ’21 said. “She was an extremely successful athlete and brings the same mentality into her role as a coach. She believes in her gymnasts and gets her gymnasts to understand their own abilities as a team.”

The Blue and White clinched a win at its first-ever meet, but this did not come without hurdles. The Elis had to create their own uniforms out of old men’s swim uniforms and buy their own equipment, Tonry said. Soon after, they got the chance to compete in a meet in New London alongside Brown, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and Princeton. While Yale was in its club phase, Tonry was also coaching at a nearby high school team and attempting to make the United States women’s gymnastics team, yet an injury ultimately ended her own gymnastics career.

Though the program was making “strides,” Tonry said they still met opposition from the Yale Athletic Department. In 1977, the Ivy League had finally organized a women’s gymnastics tournament, but at first, Yale barred the team from competing.

“They said that it was too far,” Tonry said. “It was in New Jersey. … They said it was too expensive. If you could imagine an Ivy League team being told it couldn’t compete in the conference championship, it would be kind of mind-boggling.”

The Athletic Department’s decision-making seemed like an obstacle impossible for the team to overcome, Tonry said. However, this did not stop some members from protesting.

Tonry mentioned to the News that her team played a big part in convincing Yale to let them compete in the championship.

“I didn’t do anything,” Tonry said. “But the team did and next thing ya know, we were good to go.”

The pivotal meeting was a success — the women’s team won the first-ever women’s Ivy League gymnastics championship that season.

Yet, one incident still haunts Coach Tonry 44 years later. The day following the championship, Tonry had an unfortunate encounter with the then-business manager of the Athletic Department.

“He told me, ‘We don’t feel so bad about sending you because you all won,’ Tonry said. “To me it felt like they were saying that in their eyes we didn’t deserve to compete and only went because they simply allowed us.”

Tonry said this was not the last time the Athletic Department and the women’s gymnastics team clashed.

After the Bulldogs’ championship victory, the team went on a dominant run. They were flying high — literally and figuratively — and established themselves as a force alongside the men’s gymnastics team in the Ivy League and across the country.

“We were the most successful team in either men’s or women’s sports at Yale,” Tonry said.

Despite the men’s .938 winning percentage over their six years as a varsity squad, the Athletic Department pulled the plug on men’s varsity gymnastics in May 1980, and the women’s team was told they were also to be demoted to a club, Tonry said. According to a News article in 1980, then-Athletic Director Frank Ryan demoted the men’s gymnastics team, along with the volleyball teams and water polo team, to club status for a multitude of reasons, the biggest factor being the “‘Ivy Context’ — the extent to which [the sport] is offered in the Ivy League” since only a few league institutions offered a men’s gymnastics program. At the time, the News reported that the four cuts saved the University $41,000 in the overall $2.9 million budget for athletics.

Members of the team rallied together to stop the demotion. A meeting was soon scheduled between the athletic director, the women’s team, Tonry and the Faculty Committee of Athletics, to whom the team would present their case to retain its varsity status.

“I guess I was considered to be a bit of a malcontent, because I would ask for things … like leotards,” Tonry said. “There was a vindictiveness behind the [Athletic Department’s] decision to demote us and cut the men. I found out at the meeting that the team had created a packet refuting every point the Athletic Department made. Of course the athletic director didn’t even show. … He sent his assistant.”

The women ended up persuading the Yale Athletic Department, who decided not to demote the team. Throughout her interview with the News, Tonry emphasized the importance of not just understanding the history of the program, but also the passion and spirit of the many members that have gone through the program.

Tonry with Katherine Lucas ’15, left, and Joyce Li ’15, right (Photo: Courtesy of Alexandra Schmeling/YaleAthletics)

She mentioned that she has grown attached to Yale and to her athletes and gets a “great sense of fulfilment from watching their development.”

Her long stewardship of the program has also paid off when it comes to recruiting.

“Coach Tonry had a huge impact on my decision to come to Yale,” gymnast Sherry Wang ’24 said. “The first time I interacted with her, she was very kind and really tried to get to know me as a whole person which I appreciated since it made me feel like she wanted me for me rather than just my athletic capabilities. She’s very passionate about the sport and YGT as a whole and I felt very honored to be able to come to Yale and be a part of the legacy she created.”

Tonry, who co-wrote the Sports Illustrated Guide to Gymnastics with her husband Don, was named USAG Collegiate National Head Coach of the Year in 2018.

Bennie Anderson | bennie.anderson@yale.edu