In Memoriam

Barbara Tonry, legendary gymnastics coach

Barbara Tonry (far right) with the women’s gymnastics team.
Barbara Tonry (front row, second from right) with the women’s gymnastics team.

Barbara Galleher Tonry, the Yale women’s gymnastics coach since the team’s inception nearly 50 years ago, and the longest-tenured coach in NCAA gymnastics, died of cancer at Connecticut Hospice in Branford on July 12. She was 84.

Barbara Tonry devoted her life to the creation, development, and success of the women’s gymnastics program,” said Victoria M. “Vicky” Chun, Thomas A. Beckett Director of Athletics. “For nearly five decades, she prioritized the student-athlete experience and helped hundreds of Bulldogs achieve greatness at Yale and beyond.”

From the start to the finish of her long career, Tonry coached winning teams. In 1973, Yale gymnastics won its first-ever meet under her tutelage and, four years later, in 1977, the first-ever Ivy League Women's Gymnastics Championship. Her teams went on to capture 16 Ivy championships, including the Bulldogs' most recent Ivy title in 2019. Near the end of her tenure, in 2017 and 2018, she led the Bulldogs to back-to-back Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) championships — including the Elis’ first in school history. She was named ECAC Coach of the Year in 2017 and earned the country's highest distinction as USA Gymnastics Collegiate National Head Coach of the Year in 2018. 

Along the way she mentored hundreds of Yale women. Heather Simpson ’96, who captained the team during her junior and senior years, is one of scores of athletes who responded in grief to the announcement of Tonry’s death. “Barb created a space for me and all of her gymnasts through the decades to thrive in the sport we loved, excel as students, and develop as well-rounded individuals with diverse interests,” wrote Simpson. “She created a family through the generations. She made sure we knew we were a part of history, on a team worth fighting for — a team that represented opportunity not only for us as athletes, but for future student-athletes, as well.“ 

Tonry was an extraordinary multi-threat athlete herself. In the 1950s she was a tumbling and trampoline champion with an extraordinary number of gold medals to her credit. She won the national AAU tumbling championships nine times, six of which were consecutive (1952–1957). She also won the first women's national AAU trampoline championship and was a 10-time All-American. She went on to earn a spot on the 1964 U.S. Olympic training squad, a phenomenal feat given her age at the time.

Her athletic resumé also includes a Texas mixed doubles tennis championship and a Texas AAU 3-meter diving title. She was also an excellent golfer. In addition, she was twice named a finalist (1954, 1958) for the prestigious Sullivan Award, presented each year to the nation's top amateur athlete.

Tonry was not the first Tonry hired by Yale athletics — that was her husband Don Tonry, a former Olympian and NCAA champion gymnast, and a legend himself in gymnastics, who coached the Yale men’s team between 1962 and 1980.  When approached by Yale women to help them with gymnastics he turned to a person he admired — Barbara Galleher. He later married her. Together they wrote the Sports Illustrated Guide to Gymnastics.

It was challenging for the Tonrys when the university, dealing with budget cuts, eliminated the winning men’s program in 1980 while the women’s program remained and flourished, even as some other Ivy schools dropped the sport. Don Tonry remained an employee of the department in various capacities, often coaching a club team, teaching tumbling, and always helping Barbara. Don Tonry died in 2013. In honor of his years of contributions to men and women, the Bulldogs host the Don Tonry Invitational gymnastics meet each February.  

Barbara Tonry devoted her life to Yale gymnastics and her students,” said Tom Beckett, director of athletics from 1994 to 2018. “If ever Yale had a coach to match the spirit of our Bulldog mascot, it was Barbara.” It is a sentiment with which scores of Yale athletes, coaches, administrators and fans would warmly agree.

Tonry is survived by her sisters Brenda Carter of San Antonio, Texas and Beverly Smith of Hope, Arkansas. Funeral arrangements are private and a memorial service will be held in the fall.

View a tribute posted by Yale Athletics

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