The best swimmer at Grand Canyon University is a sophomore who distributes water bottles, works a stopwatch and offers encouragement to other swimmers.
She does not compete for the Antelopes. She can't — not now, and not ever.
Dagny Knutson says she enjoys her job as a student manager for the GCU men's and women's swim teams, describing the opportunity as "a miracle" and "a blessing." Only when you consider all of her back story, with its ledger of successes and sorrows, do those words seem to make sense.
Knutson, who will turn 22 in about a week, was a swimming prodigy growing up in Minot, N.D. At 16, she broke an American record in the 400-yard individual medley and appeared to be tracking for the 2012 Olympic Games. However, she listened to questionable advice and made a fateful decision to turn pro out of high school, signing with an agent rather than attending Auburn University on a swimming scholarship.
When she stopped training before the Olympic Trials for treatment of an eating disorder, the stage she once shared with Missy Franklin became Franklin's alone. At the London Games, the then-17-year-old Franklin won five medals, four of them gold. And because Franklin chose a different path, preserving her amateur status, she is now a freshman on swimming scholarship at the University of California at Berkeley.
That could have been Dagny Knutson.
"This is about as extreme a story as you'll find," GCU Head Coach Steve Schaffer says of Knutson's troubles, which have been documented by articles in the New York Times and various swimming publications.
"She was Missy Franklin before Missy Franklin was Missy Franklin. Not many get caught up quite this way, but some do get chewed up by the system. This is the worst I've seen in swimming, and I thought GCU was uniquely positioned to help."
Knutson's appeal to the NCAA a year ago for restoration of her amateur status was denied because she had signed with an agent, even though few swimmers this side of Michael Phelps make any serious money at the sport. She was coaching high schoolers in North Dakota when a pair of connections led her to GCU for the start of the second semester.
Loic Joseph, now an assistant coach for Schaffer, was known to Knutson as a coach at the club and high school levels in Bismarck, N.D. And Mike Stromberg, a longtime coach at the University of North Dakota, is friends with the well-connected Schaffer.
Wanting to help, Schaffer went to GCU's director of athletics, Keith Baker, to make the case for Knutson to be put on scholarship even though she never would swim for the Antelopes.
"I went to Keith and explained the story," says Schaffer, whose program is highly regarded in swimming circles. "I told him, 'It's not our problem, but we can fix it.' No one ever pushed back. It's great to work at a place that would take this on.
"It's a shame she didn't get to compete in college. She got some bad advice. We're going to try to give her as much of college as we can."
At one time, Knutson could have had her pick of schools; USC's high-profile swimming program was among those wanting her. But it's no coincidence that GCU took her in. Schaffer gave Buddy Turner (ex-USC) and Mychala Lynch (ex-Texas Christian) fresh starts after difficult experiences elsewhere, with the latter becoming an NCAA Division II champion for the Antelopes.
This time, however, there's nothing in it for GCU.
"They just wanted to help me and felt I deserved a college scholarship," says Knutson, who is majoring in elementary education. "The only requirement (to keep the scholarship) is that I make academic progress.
"I could feel this was the place I should be. Everything is organized and lined up. I have a lot of support academically. This is where I'll stay until I graduate or decide to stop swimming."
Knutson, who is long (5-foot-10) and has retained the powerful upper-body build of an elite swimmer, is free to train with the team as she wishes. For now, she says, she swims only to stay in shape and hasn't decided about her competitive future.
"Before, swimming was my identity," she says. "It can now be something I want to do and don't have to do. I feel like I've been through the hardest part. If the Olympic dream doesn't happen, I'm OK with that. This gives me a second chance to be competitive down the road, if I want to make that commitment."
This weekend, she will return to North Dakota when GCU's teams compete in a dual meet against the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.
For the Antelopes, it's a new year and a new affiliation with the Division I Western Athletic Conference. But for Knutson, whose Norwegian first name means "new day," it's so much more.
"The goal is that she graduate from college," Schaffer says, concerned that the story have a happy ending beyond the pool. "Anything else, she can find on her own."
Contact Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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