Dagny Knutson’s Journey, Part 2: The High School Obsession

Feature Series by Shoshanna Rutemiller

In yesterday's section, we detailed the moment at the Austin Grand Prix when Dagny Knutson realized she could no longer compete with the severity of her eating disorder, leaving before finals on the first day to return home to seek treatment. Today, we go back to the beginning of Knutson's troubles, as a determined high school athlete in small-town Minot, ND.

PHOENIX, Arizona, August 23. DAGNY Knutson was wracked with guilt the moment she boarded the plane back to Gainesville. She hadn't even completed the first day of the Austin Grand Prix, departing in the middle of her finals warm-up.

“I felt so ashamed. None of my teammates knew what I was going through except Gemma [Spofforth] and my roommate Stephanie Proud.” Knutson continued, “I felt bad for leaving them and felt bad that I couldn't even complete the meet. My pride was shot.”

Even in her earliest years swimming, Knutson never shied away from a challenge. She was her biggest critic, and her top motivator from the time her parents signed her up for swim sessions at the Minot Swim Club in North Dakota at age nine. Within a year, she had won a number of events at the Midwest Zone Championships. And she only improved further from there.

Soon, high school practices weren't enough. But Minot was ill-equipped to house a rising swimming star. Knutson would often train alone, bouncing between her high school's pool and Minot State University. Her parents hired Kathy Aspaas, the Minot high school swim coach, to provide Knutson with additional practices.

Knutson with Coach Aspaas at 2010 Ohio Grand Prix: Photo Courtesy of Knutson

“My training routine in high school was very exhausting,” she said. “It was 11 practices a week plus three two-hour dry land practices. Along with seven-hour school days… I counted all my yardage, watched all my times in every set. To this day I can remember almost every time in every test set I've ever done.”

This compulsion to train harder drove Knutson to drastic measures outside of the pool. Instead of enjoying her time as a normal high school student, who also happened to be a superstar swimmer, she became obsessive, restricting her diet in addition to her excessive training.

“A better diet equated to faster swimming,” explained Knutson. “Every time I had success in the pool I related it to my behaviors. I worked extremely hard and had what I thought was a healthy diet.”

For a maturing, growing teenager, a healthy diet is three square meals a day. But Knutson controlled herself, eating far less than a normal teenager, while burning excessive calories swimming tens of thousands of yards each week in the pool.

“I didn't eat enough during the day. If I was disciplined enough I would enjoy a big meal at night.”

Soon she noticed her body was changing. Normal body functions began to shut off as her compulsion grew stronger.

“[My] body composition changed,” she says. “[I had] no menstrual cycle, smaller clothing sizes. [I was] always cold and wore layers to school.”

Although shocking to hear now, at the time the changes didn't trouble Knutson. She was improving in swimming, bettering her times, and getting attention every time she raced.

Knutson at her first Junior team trip to Australia in 2008: Photo Courtesy of Knutson

“The more exhausted I made myself, the more successful I thought my swimming would be. There were days I could hardly carry my school backpack because I was so fatigued.”

Adding fuel to the fire was that Knutson did actually improve considerably. It came to a head in 2008, her “break out” year. At the Short Course National Championships, she won gold in the 200 freestyle, 200 IM, 400 IM and silver in the 100 freestyle. She broke Olympian Katie Hoff's 400 IM American Record in the process. At the Junior Pan Pacific Championships in Guam, she won seven gold medals and broke a 30-year-old National age group record. Knutson was the cream of the crop in the world of swimming.

“2008 was remarkable for me,” she said. “[It was] the last time that I [was] happy with swimming. After that, I became more obsessed with my body's appearance, food, and just being good enough.”

Knutson's junior and senior years in high school were unequalled. Both years she was named Swimming World Magazine's Female High School Swimmer of the Year, an honor shared with the likes of Natalie Coughlin, Missy Franklin and Jessica Hardy. She holds four National public high school records, in the 100, 200 and 500 freestyle and 200 IM. With her burgeoning career still in its infancy, reporters wondered if Knutson could be the best of all time.

On the outside, Knutson had it made. But inside, she was constantly fighting self-doubt and the pressure to continue her success.

“[I felt] guilty for intuitively knowing my desire for swimming success was weak,” she says. “Every swimming action from then on was because I knew it was [what] I was 'supposed' to or 'had' to do. Even though I had such great success, deep inside I was so unhappy. There was always something missing for me.”

In the upcoming third part of Knutson's journey, we discuss the troubles she faced as a young woman struggling to find her place in the swimming community after high school.

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