By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
A year ago this time, Dagny Knutson didn’t think she had much to be thankful for.
She was utterly unhappy in the pool and in life. She wasn’t enjoying the training or the competition. She dreaded each time she took the blocks and felt pressure every time she swam.
So much had been heaped upon her broad shoulders in terms of being America’s next great swimmer – male or female – that she broke under the pressure.
Knutson started binge eating and then throwing up most of what she had just ingested. She would lie to family and friends about where she was going and what she was doing in order to hide or disguise what she was going through.
Whenever she would give rides to friends, she would have to take a few minutes before allowing them inside to gather and throw away the many fast-food bags that she’d dispatched into her backseat. Whenever the urge to eat came over her, she would lie about needing to go to the drugstore to pick up a prescription or get gas in her car so she could hit the nearest drive-thru.
She was miserable, and it was showing in her physical and mental makeup. At meets, she started showing signs with a bloated, unhealthy appearance – something a swimsuit amplifies rather than conceals – although most people around her didn’t notice the change.
She knew she needed to get some help, but, like she did each time she went to another competition, dreading the outcome, she chose to ignore the real problem and focus on what she could control.
“Looking back, the first signs of my disorder came in my sophomore and junior years of high school and then escalated,” said Knutson, who hails from North Dakota and trains in both Minot at her club team and drives a half-hour twice a week to work with her coach in Bismarck. “I had obsessive thoughts about my body and food.
“At the time, I didn’t know it, but it was largely a reaction to wanting to be good enough for other people. I was young and wasn’t educated on eating disorders, so I honestly didn’t know what to do or how to act. I felt helpless and trapped by everything – swimming, life, expectations, pressure and especially my eating disorder.”
Things came to a head for Knutson last January. Several months after declaring her intentions to swim for Auburn University, then deciding instead to go pro and train with FAST in Fullerton, Calif., before changing her mind again to move to Florida and work with Greg Troy and the post-graduate Gator Swim Club, Knutson was unsure of her next move in and out of the pool.
She went to Austin, Tex., to compete in the Austin Invitational, but before the end of the first day, she was done. She pulled her name from the rest of her events, hopped a plane and returned home. She swam a little in March and June, but the symptoms and results of her disorder were dictating her life, and she knew in order to move forward, she needed to make some tough decisions.
“I was feeling so much pressure to perform and succeed in the pool, and you often look past some of the other things in your life, and for me, that was the fact that I wasn’t eating healthy,” said Knutson, a member of the gold-medal-winning 800 freestyle relay at the 2011 FINA World Championships. “I had to get my life in order, and the first step was being up front and being honest about my eating disorder and getting the help that I needed to get better.”
Knutson sought outpatient counseling from a therapist while living in Florida in 2011, and while it helped to discuss the issue, she said her disorder didn’t improve but became worse. After Austin, she checked into an eating disorder recovery center in Gainesville, Fla., where she underwent treatment and therapy – sometimes including her mom and family – eight hours a day, seven days a week for more than a month to better understand and control her bulimia.
Before U.S. Olympic Trials last summer, she had a major relapse and had to cancel plans to compete. She watched the meet from home, seeing teammates and friends make the team headed to London, and, while difficult to accept, knowing that she could be back in the thick of the hunt in four years – if she took control of her life – made the acceptance process easier.
“I had to let go of it all – the expectations, past family issues – and accept who I am and what I’m capable of without trying to be something or someone else to and for other people,” said Knutson, the top recruit out of high school in 2010. “When you’re struggling with something like an eating disorder, you feel like you’re all alone – no one else can understand what you’re going through – and that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“It’s a shameful feeling when you binge and purge, which adds to the disguise and concealment of the disorder, and that makes it even more difficult to talk about. Getting over that hump was huge for me. It gave me control again when I felt like I had none in various aspects of my life and swimming.”
Two weekends ago, Knutson returned to competition for the first time in almost a year at the Minneapolis Grand Prix, and while her times weren’t close to what she was doing at the peak of her swimming, she won the 200 individual medley and finished second behind friend Missy Franklin in the 200 freestyle.
But she left Minneapolis with much more than a swimming victory. For her, it is the first step of many as she embarks upon a life of control and independence, free from expectations but full of joy and hope…and thankfulness.
“I’m swimming for me now – no family or media expectations, no sponsorships, no scholarships, just for me,” said Knutson, who is taking classes online through Bismarck State College. “Swimming in Minneapolis was amazing, and I received so many kind words, emails, Facebook posts, etc. It felt so liberating to swim events for me – and really enjoy myself in the process. It had been a long time since I stepped on the blocks with joy instead of dread.
“And while it’s still a very personal experience for me (eating disorder), I want to share my story as much as possible to let other people – boys and girls – who are experiencing something similar know that they are not alone and that while it may feel like there is no escape, help is available if you reach out and ask for it. I have seen the light now, and I know what happiness feels like, and I don’t ever plan on giving that up again, for swimming, for anything.”