Feature Series by Shoshanna Rutemiller
In Parts 1 and 2, Swimming World detailed the moment when Dagny Knutson decided to seek treatment for her severe eating disorder, followed by a rewind to Knutson's incredible yet dangerously obsessive period in high school. Today, we go deeper, discussing the emotional causes of Knutson's binge eating followed by purging.
PHOENIX, Arizona, August 24. IT is an understatement to say that Dagny Knutson was heavily recruited in high school. As one of only a handful of athletes given the six-star recruiting designation by Swimming World Magazine, schools were practically pounding down her door in Minot, ND.
“My heaviest recruiters were everyone,” Knutson recalls. “Almost all of the top schools in the country wanted me to swim for them.”
After returning home in August from the 2009 World Championships in Rome, Knutson was courted by swimming powerhouses like USC, Stanford, Auburn, Texas and Arizona. All-expenses-paid recruiting trips were offered; a treat most athletes jump at the chance to take. As part of the recruiting rules, Knutson was allowed five official trips; instead, the hyper-focused athlete took only two.
“Because I was so consumed with training, I felt guilty for skipping so much training for recruiting trips,” she explains. Knutson took an official trip to USC and then to Auburn in September, committing to the War Eagles shortly thereafter.
“I didn't know what the heck I was doing,” she says. “I had a lot of family influence pointing me to Auburn and I really liked Paul [Yetter]'s IM/freestyle and Brett [Hawke]'s sprint background. So, I signed there, and that's that. If I could do it again I'd take all five recruiting trips.”
Dagny Knutson and Ariana Kukors at Disneyland in 2010, when Knutson began training professionally with FAST.
Turning professional was another tantalizing option. The US Olympic Committee awarded Knutson national team funding in January of 2009, while she was a junior in high school. Because of her world rankings, she could additionally receive sponsorship deals, prize money and a lucrative stipend promised her by USA Swimming's head coach Mark Schubert. The only catch was that she'd have to forfeit her college eligibility.
Then came the deciding blow: Yetter left Auburn after accepting the head coaching position at Florida-based T2 Aquatics.
“Paul leaving confirmed to me that I wanted to go pro,” she says. “[Schubert] encouraged me that moving to FAST would be a great option. I was just trying to make the best decision I knew how to help my swimming career.”
Aiding in her decision was that she qualified for the anticipated re-vamped Athlete Partnership Plan (APA). Proposed to USA Swimming by Schubert, the plan hoped to provide funding for professional athletes upwards to $42,000 a year, doubling the original $21,000 yearly national team stipend. Knutson turned professional expecting this financial stability through 2012, the year she could vie for a spot on the US Olympic team in London.
“The deal I thought I was getting seemed to be well worth the pro lifestyle,” Knutson explains. “So I went, and eventually was encouraged to sign with an agent. At such a young age I didn't know any better. That's what pros did.”
When Schubert was dismissed in November 2010 and some of her promised funding fell through, Knutson again found herself at a crossroads.
“Unfortunately, because of what I was promised, I found myself in a sticky situation financially when Mark was no longer employed by USA Swimming,” she says. “I know that he was looking out for me and saw my potential, but now I obviously wish things hadn't gone the way they did.”
The professional lifestyle wore heavily on Knutson. The one-per-day practices with FAST were vastly different from her rigid high school training schedule. Her swimming suffered, and she failed to qualify for the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships.
Whitney Meyers, Ariana Kukors and Dagny Knutson in September 2010
The emotional strain and excessive downtime began to take its toll, feeding into her self-destructive habit.
“[My ED] behaviors got worse because I had no regulation and no structured schedule,” Knutson said. “My swimming plateaued. I was in a lonely situation in California … living by myself in an apartment. Using my ED to cope was very easy, and easier to hide.”
It didn't help that only a few months into her training move, her coach, Sean Hutchison, resigned his position. The already unstable Knutson turned to eating. It was now her constant, and the easiest way to cope.
“Eating was the only way to feel full of something and numb life's pain away, even if it was only for a few minutes. [But] bingeing caused guilt along with physical pain from [the] fullness so purging was the solution.”
Knutson knew she needed change. She looked across the United States, and saw hope in Gainesville. By relocating to the Gator Swim Club under coach Gregg Troy, she would be in a college setting, train with Olympians, and put a stop to her downward spiral. She even made the resolution to seek help.
“I knew my eating must have been a problem because all of the over-eating I was doing couldn't have been normal. So I decided to see a therapist when I got to Florida,” she explained. “[I was] hoping the change would cure everything.”
When news broke in April of 2011 that Knutson would join Coach Troy, the swimming community greeted her decision with an outpouring of support and well wishes. Because of her stardom, her moves were tracked like a bulls-eye. It was no secret that she'd had a tough first year out of high school. What the public didn't know was that by the time her bags were packed for Gainesville, Knutson was controlled by her disorder.
“Spring of 2011 was when I realized purging after bingeing relieved me of so [many] emotions … the cycle continued from there.”
In the upcoming fourth section, we discuss Knutson's move to Florida, her gold-medal at the 2011 World Championships in the 800 freestyle relay, and the devastating North Dakota floods that rocked her already unstable world.