BISMARCK, N.D. — Dagny Knutson approached her 11th workout of the week with an intensity that burned like chlorine in the eyes. Her coach, Kathy Aspaas, said Knutson’s pacing and purpose during the high-mileage practice harkened back to when she was the most promising teenage swimmer in the country.
Aspaas had been skeptical when Knutson, 21, decided to make a comeback after retiring last January. But at the Bismarck State College Aquatic and Wellness Center three weeks ago, Knutson was outpacing expectations, her prospects of rejoining the national team improving with every stroke.
Two days later, shortly before Knutson was to begin her weekly training cycle anew, she sent Aspaas a text message.
“Don’t come to the pool," she wrote. “I won’t be there anymore."
Knutson stopped swimming a year ago to seek treatment for an eating disorder that she feared might kill her.
She dropped out this month because her family’s savings were being siphoned by her medical bills and her college tuition. After losing her USA Swimming stipend, Knutson said, she did not have the money to finance her comeback.
Compounding the financial stress was the pressure she felt in the pool to meet everybody’s great expectations, a burden she shouldered throughout her teenage years, when she was a world champion and held an American record.
From 2012 Olympic medal hopeful to recovering bulimic, Knutson was a high achiever derailed by her obsession with success. “Sometimes when I look back at myself in high school, and the years I had the most success, I don’t want to say I was clinically depressed, but I wasn’t genuinely happy," Knutson said. “I look back now and I feel like I have to be like that to be good because that’s what worked at the time, and I don’t want to be that person."
Knutson sighed. Seated beside her mother, Ronda, in a coffee bar, her favorite hangout, she said, “I’m older than my years in some ways, but emotionally it’s like I’m going on 16."
In December 2008, four months after the Beijing Olympics, Knutson set an American record in the 400-yard individual medley at the short-course national championships in Atlanta. Watching from the deck, Mark Schubert, the USA Swimming national team director at the time, could not decide which was more unfathomable: the 16-year-old Knutson’s time, 4 minutes, 0.62 seconds, or the fact that she lived and trained in Minot, N.D.
“I was blown away," Schubert said recently. “Her talent and toughness were off the charts."
North Dakota’s frigid winters and fleeting summers make it an inhospitable environment in which to grow Olympic swimmers. Regional age-group competitions were the ceiling for the best athletes on the Minot aquatic team that Knutson joined the summer before her 10th birthday.
“A lot of North Dakotans seemed content to make it to the state meet," Aspaas said. “That’s as far as their vision went."
Knutson’s father, Jim, saw bigger fish. He steered his daughter into a dry-land weight program when she was 10 and entered her in meets in Florida and California to expose her to deeper competition.
He worked 60-hour weeks as a registered nurse in a nursing home to pay for the travel and her training, Knutson said. Her parents, who briefly separated when Knutson was 13, took out a second mortgage on their home to cover her swimming expenses, Ronda said.
Keenly aware of the sacrifices her parents were making for her swimming, Knutson wanted to pay them back. The only way she knew how was by posting fast times.
“I always felt like the passenger," Knutson said, “but I was the driver."
She asked for more yardage and more workouts, which she completed by herself, racing against the clock. The same obsessive tendencies that drove her to add another mile to her practices drove her to subtract calories from her daily diet.
“I thought if I was fitter I would swim faster," Knutson said.
She took a whittling knife to her diet, carving calories here and there. If she ate foods high in sugar or fat at one meal, she would punish herself by skipping the next meal.
An occasional high-calorie binge on a weekend would be followed by a Monday of fasting, Knutson said. She was always eating on the run, never stopping long enough for her meals to draw scrutiny.
“I had no idea," said Ronda Knutson, a youth programs director at Minot Air Force Base. “I packed her lunch every day: a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich, Craisins, a chewy bar, a piece of fruit. I made her a chicken breast and salad for dinner."
She blinked back tears. “I guess we needed a class for elite athletes and their families," she said. “We thought Dagny was happy."
Knutson had little time for socializing in high school with her classmates or other swimmers, passing her adolescence largely in the company of adults: Aspaas; her parents; and Jason Blackburn, her strength and conditioning coach based in Minot.
“By high school I had stopped hanging out with a lot of my friends," she said. “I look back and I don’t think that was worth it, but at the time I felt like it was what I had to do to excel."
In January 2009, a month after her breakout performance in Atlanta, Knutson won seven medals, including six golds, at the Junior Pan Pacific Championships. She may have come across as confident and carefree, but she said she was playing a part.
“It seemed like I had pushed myself physically and mentally farther than I ever wanted to go," Knutson said.
Deciding to turn pro
As her senior year of high school drew near, Knutson grew anxious. Among female swimmers, she was the most highly coveted college prospect in the nation. But many thought she should relinquish her college eligibility, turn pro and cash in on endorsements.
Beginning in 2009, Knutson received stipends through USA Swimming that eventually totaled an estimated $100,000, she said, but the money did not cover all of her expenses.
Knutson was eager to ease her parents’ financial burden, and the idea of being a part of a team appealed to her. She signed with Auburn, only to decommit in spring 2010 after the coach who had recruited her resigned.
Unsure about what to do, Knutson, her parents, Aspaas and Blackburn met with Schubert, who suggested a training center in Orange County, Calif., where Knutson could practice with other aspiring Olympians. If she chose this route, Schubert told her, she could attend college, and USA Swimming would pay her tuition.
Knutson did not see a downside. She renounced her amateur status, signed with an agent and joined the Fullerton Aquatics Sports Team in August 2010. Consumed by homesickness and in the throes of a breakup with her boyfriend, she binged on fatty, sugary foods and, for the first time, made herself throw up.
In November 2010, Schubert was fired by USA Swimming, setting off Knutson’s anxieties because she lost some of the money he had promised. The next month, Sean Hutchison, the coach with whom Knutson was training, abruptly resigned, and her bingeing and purging episodes became more frequent, she said.
Knutson left California in spring 2011 to train with Gregg Troy, Ryan Lochte’s coach, in Gainesville, Fla. By then, she said, she had been bingeing and purging at least twice a week for at least three months.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, an estimated 20 million women and 10 million men will have a clinically significant eating disorder at some point in their lives. Yet Knutson suffered in silence, believing she was the only elite swimmer with an eating disorder.
“I just wanted to live up to others’ expectations of being a superstar athlete, and superstar athletes, in my mind, weren’t supposed to have problems," she said. “I looked around and it seemed like everyone in the swimming world was perfect."
Eventually, Knutson said, she worked up the courage to tell Troy, who directed her to a nutritional therapist. Knutson also began seeing a psychotherapist.
“I thought food was my enemy, but I depended on it to numb me out," she said. “Bingeing gave me a high feeling, and when I purged, it was like I was getting rid of all these guilty, shameful feelings."
Knutson qualified for the 2011 world championships in Shanghai, the last major international competition before the Olympics, and clocked a time of 1 minute, 56.91 seconds in the 200-meter freestyle. Only seven American women have gone faster. Knutson said she was bingeing and purging throughout the meet.
“You look at her 200 freestyle in Shanghai and you think, ‘How can anybody be doing that and going that fast?’" Schubert said. “You think, if they’re performing at a high level, they’ve got to be OK."
Shortly before the U.S. team left for China, Minot flooded when the Souris River, swollen from summer rainstorms and snow melt, breached its levee walls. Knutson’s parents were evacuated, along with thousands of others.
Their house, which took on 15 feet of water, was condemned. Saddled with the second mortgage, her parents could not afford to rebuild. After a foreclosure, they moved to Washburn, a small town between Minot and Bismarck.
Knutson mourned the loss of the house as if it were her childhood that had been destroyed. In the lead-up to the London Games, she said, she had good days, bad days — and worse days, when she would sob between training swims or not show up for practice.
“As the pressures from other people expecting her to compete well went up, her problem got worse," Troy said. “It was really hard to deal with. The last thing I wanted to do is put more pressure on her."
During a Grand Prix meet last January in Austin, Texas, Knutson pulled herself out of the pool in the middle of her warm-up and informed Troy that she was through. She flew to North Dakota and made plans for inpatient care in Minneapolis at the Emily Program, a private treatment center for eating disorders.
Knutson spent one month in residence and another in an outpatient program but returned home when her insurance coverage ran out. She said she experienced her last bingeing and purging relapse five days after last summer’s Olympic swimming trials.
A standout at the meet was 17-year-old Missy Franklin, who qualified to race in seven events at the London Games. Franklin, who went on to win four gold medals, and Knutson once roomed together at a training camp in Colorado Springs, Colo. As Knutson watched Franklin’s star turn, she could not help but be reminded of her own glory days, like the 2010 national championships, in which Knutson beat Franklin in the 200 freestyle, one of her Olympic events.
“I couldn’t not watch it," Knutson said of the Olympic trials, “but it was so heartbreaking because that was supposed to be my time to show what I could do."
Regrets about college
By the end of the Olympics in August, Knutson said, she was in a good place in her recovery. She was eating healthfully and was eager to get her schooling back on track. She reached out to Lindsay Mintenko, the national team’s managing director, about her tuition at Bismarck State, a two-year college. She found out that she no longer qualified for the tuition assistance because she had fallen out of the world rankings while in recovery.
Mintenko, a two-time Olympian, described the conversation as heartbreaking, saying, “I feel for her so, so much."
She had once been in Knutson’s place, losing her stipend for the 2004 Olympic year when a broken kneecap caused her 2003 rankings to drop.
“I feel like we helped her to the extent we could help her without really sacrificing others who have qualified under the criteria," Mintenko said.
Needing to build her bank account, Knutson returned to the only job she knew: swimming. She began training again at the end of August, and she said she felt she was starting from a better place, having realized through therapy that her self-worth was not tied to her swimming results. Knutson’s weight, which ranged from 135 to 170 pounds because of her eating disorder, had stabilized on her 5-foot-10-inch frame.
“When I found out I didn’t need the sport of swimming anymore to be somebody, I thought I’d try it again," she said.
In November, three months into her comeback, Knutson entered a Grand Prix meet in Minneapolis. To her surprise, she won the 200-yard individual medley, finished second to Franklin in the 200 freestyle and took another second in the 200 butterfly.
At the short-course national championships in Austin, Texas, a month later, however, Knutson placed 11th in the 200 freestyle, 12th in the 200 butterfly and 19th in the 200 individual medley. After the promise she showed in Minneapolis, the expectations crept back in, and Knutson started feeling the same anxieties about performing well that had set off her eating disorder.
She trained for another month, but when the new college semester started, she stopped swimming to focus on her classes. The decision was questioned by her mother and Aspaas but applauded by her father, who was paying her bills, Knutson said.
“I feel like there’s a point where it’s time to move on with my life instead of trying to keep hanging on," she said.
An elementary education major, Knutson plans to transfer in the fall to the University of Mary in Bismarck, which she chose in part because she can live at home.
She traces her decline to her decision not to swim in college.
“It’s going to haunt me the rest of my life, probably, if I keep dwelling on the past," she said.
The day after Knutson sent her retirement text to Aspaas, she posted a message on her Facebook page that read: “If you are able to compete collegiately for a university, consider yourself more than blessed!! Although I took some bad advice in the past and have to deal with the consequences, I’d give anything to be able to do something like represent my school. Just a thought."
Knutson personally delivered that message to Franklin, then 16, at the 2011 world championships. She said she took aside Franklin, who won three golds at the meet to position herself for Olympic stardom, and told her, “I’d give anything to go back in time and change my mind about turning pro."
Last fall, Franklin, a high school senior, made an oral commitment to the University of California, Berkeley.
In an email, she wrote: “Dagny was very honest and it meant so much to me. To hear everything she had to say about wishing she had stayed amateur only solidified my decision that much more."
Knutson turned 21 on Jan. 18, and the milestone turned into a three-day celebration. The night before, she attended a dance at her college. She had dinner on her birthday with her mother, Aspaas and a few friends. The next night, she attended a rock concert.
“I really, really enjoyed myself," she said. “I’ve never really done anything special for my birthday because I always had swim practice or I was at a meet. I thought about that a lot over the weekend, just how fun it was to be a normal person."