50 Years of Women's Varsity Athletics at Yale: A Historic Retrospective
Third Quarter: Championship Seasons
Success comes in many forms. Ivy League or national championship titles are highly visible and easily identifiable markers of a winning program. By this metric, over the past fifty years, Yale’s women’s teams have undeniably triumphed. Yet wins and losses only tell part of the story. Each victory only occured because of the hard work and determination of the players and those who supported them. It also required an ongoing investment: in facilities, in institutional support, in the athletes as their full selves. The earliest champions helped build a strong foundation for future generations of Yale women athletes to build on, on game day and every day, as they won games and advocated for their teams.
Though athletes on women’s teams finally started to gain recognition for their successes, it is vital to remember the continuing challenges the programs faced. As we reflect on how hard the women’s varsity teams had to fight to garner support, we must also consider the extra pressures placed on the marginalized athletes on these teams. It’s also important to contemplate the effect the lack of recognition and representation had on the stellar, yet gravely overlooked, athletes from these communities.
Drive. Determination. Immaculate Execution.
On the court and on the field, Yale’s women athletes demonstrated their talent and determination to succeed almost from the start. Just five years after being elevated to varsity status, the women’s squash team captured the Howe Cup, the national championship prize, in 1977. This marks the first national title for the Yale women’s varsity teams. In 1979, the lacrosse team made it all the way to the NCAA Final Four, the same year that crew won Eastern Sprints and the national title, and women’s basketball won the Ivy League tournament. Less than a decade after the first women’s varsity teams were formed at Yale, they sent a clear message to the university and the world that they were serious competitors.
The story for the first national championship win for the women’s varsity squash team was nothing short of exquisite. While the women’s team went into this championship with an undefeated season so far (including a 7-0 win against Harvard), they were up against a powerful rival, Trinity, who would make the athletes on this women’s team put in their fair share of blood, sweat, and tears. Led by Captain Margie Yates, the women’s squash team was full of “greats” including Clare Swanger ‘77, Cindy “Clutch” Hayden ‘79, Sally Bachman ‘79, Page Knudsen ‘77, and many more. Each of these athletes played a critical role in the championship win that gave the team a perfect 10-0 record for the season, truly defining what it means to be undefeated.
Yale varsity teams also had early success in the Ivy League. The late 1970s saw the gymnastics, swimming, volleyball, and basketball teams all clinch Ivy League titles.
The 1977 gymnastics team that won the Ivy League championship that year almost didn’t get the chance to compete. The championship was to take place in the far and distant land of New Jersey, and initially Yale balked at the distance and cost. However, after the athletes protested, they were allowed to attend, securing the win at the first ever Ivy League championship for women’s gymnastics.
The team was led by coach Barbara Tonry, who coached Yale women’s gymnastics from the program’s inception in 1973 until her death in 2021, making her the longest serving coach in NCAA gymnastics. Throughout her tenure, Tonry advocated for women’s gymnastics at Yale, fighting to ensure equitable treatment and support for the program.
The 1978 swim team not only topped the Ivy League tournament that year, but multiple swimmers set new Yale records. Though the “mermaids” as they were dubbed by the Yale Daily News came second in the following week’s New England Championships, the performance surpassed coach Eve Atkinson’s expectations.
Back to Back Championships
A 1984 Yale Daily News article noted that with the outstanding performance of the women’s teams, “it is hard to believe that women’s sports at Yale are little more than a decade old”. The statement was made the same year the women’s fencing team won the NCAA national championships, which is often cited as the first national championship for Yale women’s athletics, though the team had also won the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) national championship in 1982. The 1984 victory was made all the more impressive since some of the season was played without star player Andrea Metkus '85 due to Olympic trials and international competition. However, even when the team lost, athletes like Jessica Yu '87 put up a valiant fight, helping to keep up the momentum and allow the team to bounce back. Even more impressive, the team went on to repeat their success the following year, securing a back to back national championship victory. Their success was recognized locally and beyond, with Metkus receiving the national Broderick Award and Yu being awarded the Frances Gordon Brown Prize, an accolade which honors the academic and athletic excellence of a Yale junior.
Fencing wasn’t the only sport where Yale excelled. The squash, gymnastics, and tennis teams also continued to perform at championship level. Additionally, the women’s crew team secured the Willing Cup for their dominance at Eastern Sprints in 1986. The Cross Country and Track teams secured multiple victories at the indoor and outdoor Heptagonals in the eighties through early nineties.
The 1993 women's softball team represents one of the greatest comeback stories in Yale women's sports history. Led by captain Becky Huinker, Class of 1993, the Bulldogs went from a 12-26 record the previous year to a 31-12 record and 7-0 Ivy League record and the division title. The team earned their first all-Ivy player in Jennifer Surface, Class of 1996 along with Rookie of the Year honors to Toni Fortunato, Class of 1996.
"Women top Ivies...men linger in the cellar"
-Yale Daily News headline. September 9, 1976.
In this September 1976 Yale Daily News article, author Roger Strong laments the .416 winning percentage of men's sports while praising the .822 winning percentage of women's sports, awarding them the best win-loss record (74-16-2) in the Ivy League. Throughout the first two decades of women's sports, teams regularly equalled or surpassed their male counterparts. The statistics below from a May 22, 1995 Yale Daily News article demonstrate the consistent success women's sports achieved.
Over the past thirty-eight years, Yale has sent 29 women to the Olympic Games as either a competitor, coach or trainer, winning a total of 16 medals including one Gold Medal. The first Yale Woman Athlete to participate in the Olympic Games was Maura Haponski (Grogan) Class of 1978 in the Luge. That same year in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Canada (the first and only Summer Olympics to be held in Canada), Anne Warner, Class of 1977, earned the first medal for a Yale Woman Athlete with a Bronze Medal in the 8-oared shell race for rowing. Chris Ernst, Class of 1976, served as an alternate for the American rowing team.
Sada Jacobson, Class of 2004, won three Olympic medals in fencing at the 2004 games in Athens and the 2008 games in Beijing
Kate O'Neill, Class of 2003 competed in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens as one of only two Americans to run in the 10,000 meter event and was the first long-distance runner at the Olympics from Yale since 1976.
For the past half century, Yale women's athletics has won numerous Olympic medals, 32 NCAA and ECAC championships and 72 Ivy League championships. The record of achievement for women's athletics at Yale is impressive and undeniably voluminous