Feature series by Shoshanna Rutemiller
In the previous three sections Swimming World shared the beginnings of Dagny Knutson's eating disorder. We started with Knutson's dramatic departure from, and decision to seek help after, the Austin Grand Prix. Then we went back to her high school days, when her compulsive attitude to training manifested itself in her eating habits. Yesterday, we discussed how her unstable year turning professional following graduation worsened her behaviors.
PHOENIX, Arizona, August 25. DAGNY Knutson departed from Fullerton, California, in the spring of 2011 anticipating a new beginning in Florida. She would be thousands of miles away from the instability, the loneliness, and the devastating hole that she had dug for herself in California.
Upon reaching Gainesville, she enrolled in classes at a local community college, hoping to eventually transfer her credits to the University of Florida. Heading back to school gave Knutson a taste of the college experience she had lost by turning professional right out of high school.
“I loved Florida. It was the most fun I've ever had,” Knutson says. “I finally had a social life and friends, and saw that swimming could be fun.”
Knutson committed herself to training with Coach Gregg Troy and the Gator Swim Club, sharing the pool with US Olympians Elizabeth Beisel and Ryan Lochte, along with a handful of international teammates. The eclectic mix of personalities was exciting, and Knutson welcomed a more stringent training schedule.
“My drive for swimming lit [a fire] in my belly. I saw how good I was and how good I could be.”
Knutson's mom spray painted the front of her flood-damaged home in honor of her daughter competing at World Championships
Only a few months out from World Championships in Shanghai, Knutson amped up her training. Her fifth-place finish at the National Championships in the 200 freestyle qualified her for an alternate position on the women's 4×200 freestyle relay. At the World Championships, Knutson, along with Olympians Missy Franklin, Katie Hoff and Allison Schmitt, went on to capture gold for the United States in the finals of the event. The women dominated the field, outstripping their nearest competitors, the Australians, by over a second, and reclaimed the title from the Chinese, who took bronze.
Knutson should have been on top of the world, capping her teenage years with a medal most athletes only fantasize about. But by now her eating disorder was suffocating. It began to escalate more dramatically, rearing its ugly head even in the midst of competition.
“I swam on a gold medal relay last summer at Worlds while making myself binge and purge almost everyday of the trip,” Knutson says, adding, “And I swam my best time (1:56.9) in my open 200 freestyle. Impressive, eh?”
Then another shockwave rocked Knutson's already fragile world. At nearly the same time Knutson won the coveted World Champion title, her home in Minot, ND, was being swallowed by water. Severe summer rainstorms in Canada combined with snow melt in North Dakota caused water levels in the nearby Souris River to rise dramatically. The water put intense pressure on the levees, breaching their walls and causing a “100-year flood” to consume much of her small hometown.
“The flood was devastating for my whole family,” she says. “Our actual house was under about 15 feet of water.”
Nearly 11,000 residents were forced to evacuate. Lives and belongings were saved, but hundreds of homes, including Knutson's, were abandoned to the rising waters. Knutson's family was forced to relocate to a small townhome in Washburn, ND about an hour away from Minot.
Flooding damage to the front of Knutson's home in Minot, North Dakota
“It didn't hit me until my mom drove up to watch [the Minneapolis Grand Prix] and we went out to lunch. I was so upset because I wanted to just go home. My mom encouraged me that I'd be home in two weeks for Thanksgiving. But I got mad [because] Washburn was NOT my home. My home was gone, and I could never go back. The house I lived in for 15 years was gone. My room, which was my only sanctuary away from everything, was gone.”
Knutson was always able retreat to her room, her “sanctuary” at times when life was unbearable. Knowing her safe haven was gone fed back into the vicious cycle of self-abuse.
She was tearing at the seams. Knutson had the talent to compete in the Olympics, but her actions were destroying her body; the vehicle she would need primed for London.
“Even though I promised myself I'd get over [it] and be an Olympic Champ, my emotional pain was still un-resolved and my behaviors worsened,” she says. “Side effects from my eating disorder would cause me to show up [to training] weak and shaky.”
Knutson continued to train in her weakened state. She had been seeing a therapist regularly since her move to Florida, supplementing her sessions with a nutritional therapist specializing in eating disorders. Despite her willingness to seek help, Knutson was completely at the mercy of her disorder.
“Bulimia, the binge-and-purge disorder that tends to afflict young women, resembles addiction in several important ways. There is often a family history of alcoholism and other eating disorders,” says addiction recovery site The Fix.com. “Bulimia's impact on the brain's reward center is quite direct, judging by the high relapse rate among bulimics.”
The flooding damage in Knutson's room
Knutson was using her bulimia to escape from her tumultuous reality. Like so many bulimics, she experienced a loss of control around food, and a “high” that came from purging.
But the high was superficial and short lived. “It was wrecking my relationships,” Knutson says. “I was in a deep depression.”
With the Olympic Trials fast approaching, Knutson knew the expectations the swimming community had for her, the “Small-Town Girl, Big-Time Swimmer.” In her vulnerable state, Knutson was unable to share her struggle and instead continued to train and compete.
“I was embarrassed that I even had a problem. It seemed [like] everyone in the swimming community had their s–t together all the time. I was so lost and confused at how I had gotten to this point.”
This brings us back to the beginning of our story: the Austin Grand Prix meet in January 2012, when Knutson finally mustered the strength to face her bulimia head-on.
We end the last section of this series on a happier note, discussing Knutson's treatment, recovery, and shedding light on the steps others suffering with eating disorders can take to combat their affliction.