Looking Back at Barbara Tonry’s Legacy

In 1973, Barbara Tonry assumed the role of head coach of the Yale gymnastics team in its first season. For the next 48 years, she would continue to hold that role, collecting 16 Ivy League championships and back-to-back ECAC team titles—the 2017 title would be the first in school history. She would go on to coach 23 ECAC champions and 92 Ivy League champions during this time as well, and become the longest-tenured coach in NCAA gymnastics. 

“Yale Gymnastics would not be where it is without Barbara Tonry at the helm. She devoted her life to the creation, development and success of this program. For nearly five decades, she prioritized the student-athlete experience and helped hundreds of Bulldogs achieve greatness at Yale and beyond,” said Yale athletics director Victoria Chun. “Barbara is beloved by generations of alumnae and alumni and she has left a legacy that will be felt for decades to come.”

Born and raised in Texas, Tonry has herself excelled in gymnastics. After graduating in 1961 from the University of North Texas, she went on to continue her storied gymnastics career. In 1964 her skills placed her on the U.S. Olympic training squad. Her gymnastics athleticism was apparent beyond artistic as she excelled in trampoline and tumbling as well, where she was a nine-time tumbling champion—six titles of which she won consecutively from 1952 to 1957. She was also the first to win the AAU national women’s trampoline championship. In addition to her gymnastics titles, Tonry also held titles in tennis as a Texas mixed doubles champion and the Texas AAU 3-meter diving. Her athletic accomplishments led to her nomination of the illustrious Sullivan Award in 1954 and 1958, reserved for the nation’s top amateur athlete. Later, her accolades would include being inducted into the U.S. Gymnastics Federation Hall of Fame, the National Tumbling and Trampoline Hall of Fame and the Texas Hall of Fame. 

Already familiar with New Haven after attending Southern Connecticut State as a grad student, it was her incredible athletic skills that would help carve her path to Yale. This path would begin with a phone call from Don Tonry, her then-boyfriend. Don was serving as the head coach of the Yale men’s gymnastics team, a position he would hold from 1962 until 1980, and he would continue to coach even when the men’s team was deemed a club sport and eventually dropped. When a few female athletes approached him about the team, Don looked to Barbara to help the team get started.

After some persuading, Tonry packed her bags to work at Yale. Upon meeting what would become her team, Tonry recalled she was “captivated by their tenacity.” This would later be pivotal as they moved forward as a varsity program. During her first few years with the program, Tonry coached the women’s club team while simultaneously coaching a nearby high school squad while she herself continued to train, hoping to make the U.S. women’s gymnastics team. An injury would lead to her retirement as an athlete. 

Despite the end of her career as an athlete, her tenure as Yale’s head coach was just getting started. Her legacy began on the day of the program’s first meet: The team walked away with a win against Connecticut College, and she would later go on to amass over 200 wins. However, the team wasn’t without struggle. Leotards were fashioned from old men’s swim team suits, and they had to supply their own equipment.

Even with their growth and success, in 1977 the Yale athletic department attempted to block the team from competing in the first Ivy League gymnastics tournament. The meet was to take place in New Jersey, and the department felt it was too far and too expensive for the team to travel. The team protested this decision and brought home its first title. 

Tonry’s team continued to climb and win. Still, shortly after bringing home another Ivy League title in the spring of 1980, she was informed by the athletic department that the varsity team would be demoted to club status. Tonry herself said she was “considered to be a bit of a malcontent, because [she] would ask for things … like leotards.”  Again, the team successfully dissuaded the department, arguing that it was one of Yale’s most successful programs, and it was able to continue as a varsity sport. The team would go on to win that same Ivy League title another nine times before the turn of the century.

After her passing, many spoke about all Tonry had done in her fight over the years to preserve Yale gymnastics’ place as a varsity sport, an effect that would create opportunities and inspire others in their own fight for women’s gymnastics programs at the college level.

Chris Bogantes, formerly an NCAA gymnastics assistant coach, ascertains that Tonry “pioneered equality for female athletes” and echoed what so many others believe as well. Tonry “spent a lifetime fighting for what we know as NCAA [women’s gymnastics]” far before it was even acknowledged as a sport. 

Even with all of her time spent as an athlete and coach, she never brushed others off, even those just starting out. Bogantes noted that Tonry “treated [him] with so much respect and like an equal even though [he] had been coaching for 5 years and she had been coaching for 50.” Many others have spoken fondly of her as a good friend, a pioneer for women, as well as the sport of gymnastics, and a tenacious human—an inspirational legend within her own right.

Tonry wasn’t just a head coach; she served on several boards, including the National Association for Intercollegiate Gymnastics and the U.S. Gymnastics Federation Hall of Fame Selection Committee. Together she and Don would go on to write Sports Illustrated Guide to Gymnastics. Yale gymnastics has suitably claimed that Barbara will “forever [be] our leader and our legacy.” 

READ THIS NEXT: Barbara Tonry, Yale Gymnastics Head Coach, Dies at 84

Article by Allison Freeman 

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