By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Dagny Knutson won a gold medal at the 2011 World Championships. She did not compete at the 2012 Olympic Trials because she was battling an eating disorder. Dagny has since moved back to North Dakota from Florida, where she has resumed training. She plans to return to competition at the Minneapolis Grand Prix next month. Here is part one of our interview with Dagny, in which she discusses her eating disorder, her return to the pool, and her plans for the upcoming Minneapolis Grand Prix.
You’ve been away from the competitive part of swimming for a little bit now. You courageously told your story of battling with an eating disorder and missed the 2012 Olympic Trials. What has been the reaction from the swimming community and your own community after sharing that?
I’ve gotten so much positive feedback. A lot of it made me pretty emotional. I didn’t know if coming out with my story was the right thing to do or not. I had friends I went to high school with, people didn’t know, other friends’ parents, who sent me messages or emails or whatever, thanking me for coming out with my story. Telling me how brave and courageous I was. That I could be on top of it again if I set my mind to it. A lot of people pulling for me. I’ve had people from other countries who were like, “I can’t believe you went through this, I’m so proud of you.” I’ve had other people who told me they’re going to get help because of [sharing the story].
Those are some powerful statements. What was that like?
It was such a good feeling. I feel I’m really impacting people. I’ve always felt like I am meant to do something big and good, and I always thought it was swimming, but this could be the beginning of what it could be. Helping people through a struggle of an eating disorder. It’s so much more life threatening than people realize. People looked at me and didn’t think anything was wrong because I wasn’t 80 pounds or 300 pounds. But it’s a very, very sensitive subject. I just wanted to educate people more so because I wanted to bring more awareness to it. It’s out there more than people think.
Tell us what’s going on in your life these days. So you’re back training in North Dakota?
Right now I train mostly in Bismark, North Dakota. My parents live near there. They have a nice new pool there. The Paralympic Trials were there last summer. I train with Kathy Aspaas. I drive to Minot three times a week to see Jason Blackburn, my dryland trainer. I do quite a bit of driving throughout the week. A lot of napping, a lot of training. I’m really enjoying it. Still being able to see Kathy and Jason a lot. Being around the North Dakota swim community again makes me feel comfortable.
So far training is going really, really, really well. Of course, I was not very good when I started. I had taken since January with no exercise at all. It’s hard getting back in. I’m still in that improving stage, but I’ve made a lot of progress. I’m just excited to be competing again.
So you didn't swim through the spring and summer?
I did swim for two months over the summer in Florida, but it was inconsistent. I didn’t really know where my goals were, and I wasn’t fully recovered as far as health is concerned. As far as being healthy and serious and focused and happy, August was the first time I had really felt good about being back in the water. I had about five or six months total since January with no exercise of any kind throughout.
It always feels good to get back in the water. But I could tell I wasn’t the same swimmer. I didn’t have a good feel of the water. I didn’t have the conditioning to even make an hour and a half of a full practice. I could definitely tell I had the skill level, but I didn’t have the conditioning to keep that skill level up. It didn’t take much to get my heart rate up there. You could tell just by looking at me physically I hadn’t swum in a really long time. I knew when I started swimming again that that’s what it was going to take. I’m willing to do that, because I think I’m good enough to get back to where I used to be and do it the right way.
How often are you practicing?
I’m still building. I’m doing a double on Monday and Wed, then singles Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and dryland Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. I drive about an hour. I drive there, do my workout, then go back home, nap, then drive even farther south to Bismark for another half an hour. I live kind of in the middle of Minot and Bismark.
That’s a long commute. What is it about Jason’s dryland that makes that drive worthwhile?
I realize it’s a far trek. But I’ve been with Jason since I was 13. I’ve done a lot of different great exercises with him. I know he truly cares and has done so much for not just me but for my family over the years, I completely trust him with everything. We have such a great athlete-coach relationship. I don’t know that I could have that with anyone else. Every time I go there, it’s really focused.
Outside of the pool, what are you doing?
During the week, not too exciting. The driving makes me tired. I will start school here in about two weeks. A short condensed semester. Hobbies, I want to make art in my occupation as an art therapist. Just to keep my mind outside of swimming. When I’m away from the pool, I don’t want to think about the pool. I’ve been seeing friends, which has been really, really, really nice. I’m starting classes at Bismark State College. I’m trying to go there for one more year.
Let’s talk about the Minneapolis Grand Prix. What are your goals for the meet?
Yeah, I haven’t done any meets – the last meet I was at was the Austin Grand Prix back in January, where I didn’t even finish the first day before I flew home. I don’t see it as too much of a big deal. I’m more excited than anything to see friends on the deck. To see what three months of training has done after taking so much time off. I don’t expect to see any huge performances because of that. I have a good perspective on what I think I can do. But I know I’m ready to swim at the meet, because if I wasn’t mentally ready, I wouldn’t be going.
Are you planning on attending other Grand Prixs later in the season?
Yeah. I don’t know if this counts, but I might do AT&T Winter Nationals in Austin, Texas. I’m planning to go to most of the Grand Prixs. I’m not sure which ones. Probably the new ones in Orlando and in Arizona. I think we’re going to Charlotte too. One a month has always been our thing, when I swam with Kathy last time. I’m excited.
Will it be nice to get back to racing relatively close to home?
Oh yeah. I think I’m going to have a small little entourage with me. [Laughs.] My coach, my mom, my trainer, my older sisters live in Minneapolis. They’ll be there. One of my friends from home might go with. I’ve always enjoyed going to Minneapolis. We’re going to drive there. I’ve grown up swimming in the Minneapolis pool. It’ll be a really comfortable environment to have my first competition back in.