Numerous Generations of Yale Gymnasts Remember Tonry as Dedicated Coach and Inspirational Mentor
In the early 70s, former olympian Don Tonry transformed the Yale Gymnastics Club into a varsity men’s team that competed until 1980 and won three Ivy League championships. He was also Yale’s Associate Athletic Director of Physical Education and directed the first sports camp for Yale. Don’s wife Barbara has been the head coach of the Yale women’s gymnastics team since its inception, capturing 14 Ivy titles since 1973.
In the early days of Yale Gymnastics – and thus in the early days of coeducation – men’s sports were much more supported by universities nationwide, but this changed drastically with Title IX in 1972. While regulations made it easier for most women’s sports to recruit athletes (which was, no doubt, a great thing), many American universities had to cut men’s varsity programs in sports such as wrestling, tennis, track and field – and gymnastics. As a consequence, Yale stopped allocating recruits to men’s gymnastics in the late 70s and the team soon lost its status as a varsity sport. With limited funding for men’s gymnastics as a club sport, it became increasingly hard to sustain the club and the project of men’s gymnastics at Yale had to be abandoned altogether.
Still being dedicated to instruct Yale students in gymnastics, Don continued teaching his coed tumbling class together with graduate student Kevin McLean. This class was then the only opportunity for male Yale students to learn gymnastics. Despite being in a wheelchair and other health problems during his late life, Don taught tumbling at Payne Whitney until he passed away in May 2013.
It was during this semester that Daniel Aeschliman and Philipp Arndt ’16 met in Don’s tumbling class and decided that they would try to re-establish recreational men’s gymnastics at Yale. While unfortunately, Don could not witness the official recognition of gymnastics in 2013 anymore, it was his tumbling class that made Yale Club Gymnastics possible.
Co-founder Philipp Arndt ’16 stresses that it is now the club’s responsibility to keep alive what Don has brought to Yale – gymnastics as a sport that is accessible to everyone on campus who is willing to put in the work, regardless of experience:
“Unfortunately, I was only able to get to know Don in his last year. I was a freshman, hailing from Germany, looking for a way to pursue my passion: gymnastics. Soon, I heard about Don’s tumbling class offered at Payne Whitney and I started to build my class schedule around it. From then on, every Tuesday and Thursday at 12:50, I would run out of my math class and sprint to Payne Whitney, ready to tumble.
Simply the fact that Don taught tumbling until last year shows how dedicated he was to the sport of gymnastics and to making it accessible to all Yale students, with or without prior gymnastics experience.
In offering his tumbling class, Don did something much more important than just providing some students with the opportunity to do flips in the gym. Every semester, Don brought together a group of students passionate about gymnastics. Only this gymnastics community inspired us to work on establishing gymnastics as a club sport at Yale.
Everything that Gymnastics is now at Yale, we owe to Don and his wonderful wife Barbara, who is still head coach of the women’s varsity team. Gymnastics at Yale is and will always be inseparable from the name Tonry, but it will be the job of a new generation to keep the sport alive on campus in the future. In memory of a great man I knew for too short.
In memory of Don Tonry.”
Multiple generations of athletes agree that the name Tonry is and will always be inseparable from Gymnastics at Yale. In the words of Morgan Traina ’15, captain of the women’s team,
“Yale gymnastics would not be what it is today without the Tonrys. Coach Barb always pushes us to be our very best, while also inspiring us with her elaborate wisdom that has come from years of involvement in the sport. Don used to visit our practices, and his smiling face in the gym and pure passion for the sport motivated all of us to be the best team that we can be.”
Esther de Lory ‘77 reminds us that the Tonrys did not only achieve to establish the difficult sport of gymnastics at Yale, but that they built a community of friends around the sport. In October 2013, she brought together this community at Yale in her role as organizer of the Don Tonry Memorial. De Lory remembers that
“the Tonry’s have always had a united and singular vision to makegymnastics an important and lasting athletic institution at Yale. To them, gymnastics was more than just a casual intramural activity – it was a way to develop a whole person. Through discipline, practice and competition, we learned about perseverance, overcoming obstacles, reaching for the next level, teamwork, trust, and building lifelong friendships.”
Barbara Wagner ’73 recognizes that Don Tonry was also a pioneer in the area of coeducation in those early days when women at Yale were still highly outnumbered by men and not officially admitted to athletics programs. Back then, Don taught a coed tumbling class and allowed anyone to stay and work out with the men’s gymnastics club afterwards.
“Don […] treated everyone alike–didn’t afford anyone special treatment or kid glove handling. Had it not been for his low-key approach–always encouraging but never admonishing–I probably would have eventually sought some other activity, where I felt more comfortable. I may have been partly because this class had a normal 50-50 male-female ratio that the gymnastics room was one of my favorite places to spend time during my four years at Yale.”
Bruce Davis, now President of the World Acrobatics Society, remembers Don as
”a 1960 Olympian, spending his valuable time helping a beginner gymnast from “India-no-place” learn a skill that he Don himself could perform in his sleep.”
David Martin ’65 mentions that gymnasts wouldn’t need to have talent to merit Don’s attention. All one had to do was to show up every day and work hard, and one would get what was probably the best gymnastics training available anywhere in America. In his words
“having Don running down the mat beside you as your spotter was like having a concert pianist sitting beside you while you practice your scales.”
Michael Schmertzler ’74, who is since 1997 also a professor at the Yale School of Management, remembers how altruistically the Tonrys devoted themselves to mentoring their students:
“Both world class, accomplished athletes, Don and Barbaraselflessly pioneered the establishment of a new and difficult sport for men and women at Yale. They each lead relative neophytes to serious levels of competitive achievement and the broader community to better health. Barbara still is, and Don was, a skilled, tireless, inspiring, and determined coach and a caring, genuine, grounded and individually attentive mentor.”
Many generations of gymnasts at Yale agree: The most important lesson that Don Tonry has taught us, is that a good coach should give attention as an instructor and mentor to any gymnast who is willing to learn – regardless of age, gender, skill level or prior experience. Yale Club Gymnastics shall always embrace this principle.