Super Senior: Founders of Dunkley’s Gymnastics Camp going strong 50 years later

Published: Aug. 3, 2023 at 4:00 PM EDT
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SOUTH HERO, Vt. (WCAX) - Dunkley’s Gymnastics Camp In South Hero is jumping.

Fifty girls from seven to 17 are flipping, vaulting, and balancing on the shores of Lake Champlain.

“When we come in June, Dan goes, ‘I’ll see you in September dear,’” said Ruth Dunkley McGowan, who runs the operation with her husband, Dan McGowan. They started it a half-century ago, when Dan was 24 and Ruth was 22

“It’s a blink, it’s a blink. You’re so involved in each moment and each moment is different, and because there’s always kids and kids are always so different,” Ruth said.

The camp was the dream of Ruth’s father, Tom. He was busy running a gymnastic day camp at the University of Vermont, so it was up to the young couple to make it work. They even got married there that summer it all started. Their honeymoon in Maine was rather short.

“We went for two days in Ogunquit and we went deep sea fishing and we caught a whole bunch of fish -- flounder. We froze it and brought them back and after two days, that’s what we served camp.

Those early days were a challenge. “There were times when we invited kids in the neighborhood, friends of our daughters, to come to camp for free just to make it look like 20 people in camp,” Dan said.

Nowadays, 400 kids each summer attend Vermont’s only sleep-over gymnastic camp. And with 50 years of traditions, it’s not surprising there’s a camp song.

“There are girls who come here and they’re all studded up and they look all fancy and everything -- that’s when they walk in -- and by dinner time that night, they’re just kids playing,” Dan said. And eating... “They come in very hungry, very hungry.” The meals are the only time during the day when Dan and Ruth join forces.

The future of the camp will most likely fall to their two daughters, who both work during the summer session.

“Satisfied, satisfied that it’s still going on, you know? Energized that the legacy still lives,” Dan said.

Reporter Joe Carroll: It’s been a good life here?

Ruth Dunkley McGowan: Oh, it’s been a wonderful life, yeah. I feel very blessed.

The last evening of the camp staff is bittersweet. “At 9 o’clock, we all sit around one table -- there’s usually about 30 of us -- and we will laugh and cry over the various things that we have experienced that summer. And that’s the end,” Dan said.

Memories that carry on.