Courtesy of Alexandra Schmeling/Yale Athletics

Longtime Yale gymnastics head coach Barbara Tonry died last week at the age of 84.

Tonry, the first women’s gymnastics coach in Yale history, died of cancer on Monday, July 12. She had led the program for its entire existence, since the team’s beginnings in 1973. Under her leadership, Yale captured 16 Ivy League championships. A member of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation Hall of Fame, Texas Hall of Fame and the National Tumbling and Trampoline Hall of Fame, she was the longest-tenured coach in NCAA gymnastics.

Yale Athletics announced her passing on Tuesday evening, and tributes and condolences from former players, Yale coaches and other Division I gymnastics programs followed.

“Barb spent nearly 50 years pouring her heart and soul into the program, and into every single one of us,” former Yale gymnastics captain and recent graduate Charlotte Cooperman ’21 said. “She paved the way for so many women at Yale, believed in us more than we could ever believe in ourselves and taught us what it means to dedicate your life to something you love.”

Before she started coaching, Tonry was a successful gymnast herself. She competed collegiately at North Texas University, where she graduated in 1961, and won the first women’s national AAU trampoline championship. She won the national AAU tumbling championships nine times, meanwhile, and was a 10-time All-American. 

Don Tonry, Barbra’s husband and the former Yale men’s gymnastics coach, passed away in 2013. He started at Yale in 1962 and initially coached men’s gymnastics at the club level. Don Tonry then led the team from its promotion to varsity status in 1973 until 1980, when the Athletic Department demoted four teams — men’s gymnastics, along with volleyball teams and the water polo squad — to club status as a cost-cutting measure. 

The Yale women gymnasts now host and compete in an annual tournament called the Don Tonry Invitational, which the Bulldogs last won in February 2020. The victory at home, just a month before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled Ivy League competitions for four athletic seasons, ultimately marked the second to last tournament Tonry coached in Yale’s John J. Lee Amphitheater.

The couple was instrumental to the Yale gymnastics program as well as to the sport at a national level — the two co-wrote the “Sports Illustrated Guide to Gymnastics”. Barbara Tonry also served on national councils, including the U.S. Gymnastics Federation Hall of Fame Selection Committee and the National Association for Intercollegiate Gymnastics. 

Alongside her impressive competition and coaching awards, another lasting piece of her legacy stems from the influence she had on players and colleagues. Cooperman described Tonry’s impact on the Yale program as “immeasurable.”

“Some of my favorite memories with Barb come from sitting in her office after practice talking and listening to her stories about the history of this program,” Cooperman said. “Each conversation reiterated her selfless attitude towards her work and reminded me of everything she did not only for us to be able to be here today, but also for future generations of YGT to continue to grow and succeed.”

In the program’s early seasons, Tonry often clashed with the athletic department, fighting for an equal footing for Yale’s women’s gymnasts. When the Ivy League organized the first women’s gymnastics tournament in 1977, Yale at first barred the team from competing.

“They said that it was too far,” Tonry told the News this past winter for a feature on her 48 years at Yale. “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.”

Tonry, who remembers being “captivated by their tenacity” upon meeting her student-athletes in the 1970s, credits members of the 1977 team for protesting the initial decision. The Athletic Department permitted the team to compete, and Yale went on to win the first-ever women’s championship meet.

Director of Athletics Vicky Chun spoke to Tonry’s life in a University press release. 

“She devoted her life to the creation, development and success of [the women’s gymnastics] program,” Chun said. “For nearly five decades, she prioritized the student-athlete experience and helped hundreds of Bulldogs achieve greatness at Yale and beyond.”

Tonry was the longest-tenured active head coach at Yale. In recent years, she helped Yale win back-to-back Eastern College Athletic Conference championships in 2017 and 2018 and a pair of Ivy team championships in 2018 and 2019.

“If ever Yale had a coach to match the spirit of our Bulldog mascot, it was Barbara,” former athletic director Tom Beckett, who led the department from 1994 to 2018, told YaleNews.

In 2018, Tonry was named the USA Collegiate National Gymnastics Head Coach of the Year.