Dark Places, New Life

by Casey Barrett

The courageous return of Dagny Knutson… 

She was said to be the next great one. She was Missy Franklin, before anyone had heard of Missy Franklin. One of the greatest high school swimmers in history, Dagny Knutson was as sought after as a college recruit could possibly be. At 17, she was swimming times worthy of gold medal goals.

She had her pick of anywhere she wanted to go, and she chose Auburn. Then, after a coaching change, she didn’t. She turned pro instead, moved out to Southern California, joined FAST, and entered an alien world of post-grad girls and a training environment a galaxy away from her native North Dakota. She moved to the other side of the country and joined Coach Gregg Troy and his Gators crew in Gainesville. This steadied her reeling psyche, for a short time, but it wasn’t enough.

Then the wheels came off. An eating disorder spiraled dangerously out of control. By last January, when her competitors were preparing for peak performances at the fast approaching Olympic Trials, Knutson found herself in a dark place. Most would have covered it up, swam lap after lap through the motions, and arrived in Omaha with false hopes of her faltering Olympic dream.

Instead, Knutson made the harder, and more honest choice. She walked away – at a time when that is utterly unthinkable for virtually any athlete with Olympic potential. She decided instead to help herself.

Last weekend, at the Minneapolis Grand Prix, she made her return. Her times were fast, not Dagny at her stunning peak fast, but damn fast nonetheless. Good enough to win the 200 IM, good enough for a strong second behind none other than Ms. Franklin in the 200 free. But of course, the times and the places were really beside the point. After all, Knutson had just spent the last seven months doing zero exercise at all. She had more important things to worry about. Like getting better.

Since Knutson left the sport last January, she has gone through two rounds of treatment for her eating disorder. She has not made this a secret. She’s spoken publicly to plenty of journalists about why she left and what she’s been going through. Don’t take these confessions lightly.

If you swam through your high school and college years, and if you’re reading this blog, it’s a good bet you did, consider how many of your female teammates likely suffered from some form of eating disorder. Some cynics might even say most. It’s that prevalent, and it’s that bad.

By coming forward in the way she did, and walking away from the sport at the moment she did, Knutson may have helped more fellow swimmers than she knows. Because there is no question at all that on every single pool deck at every high school, national, or college meet in the country, there are more than a few swimmers wrestling darkly with issues like Knutson’s.

If her story had ended in early retirement, at age 20, with national records to her name, with a World Championships gold medal from the 4 x 200 free relay back in 2011, that would have been a career filled with far more accolades than the rest of us. It would have been enough.

The ghosts of Olympic Maybes really aren’t all that scary in the end. Yet the fact that Knutson has found her way back to the pool now is a story worth celebrating. I’m sure she still thinks about London and what might have been, who wouldn’t? But what’s more worthy of admiration? A swimmer who could have hidden it all from the world, and perhaps found her way onto a relay in a struggling state…

Or a swimmer who showed the courage to be honest with herself, to get the help she needed, and then, after all of that, to return to the pool once more…