Former swimming prodigy Knutson gets fresh start at Grand Canyon

Former U.S. record-holder Dagny Knutson is training with post-graduates swimmers at Grand Canyon University and hasn't ruled out a return to competitive swimming.

PHOENIX — In the 50-meter outdoor pool at the Phoenix Swim Club, where Gary Hall Jr. and Klete and Kalyn Keller made waves and built their Olympic dreams, the Grand Canyon University swim team went through its daily training session on a Tuesday afternoon in January. 

In a smaller pool just across the deck, the most decorated woman in the program worked at a more leisurely pace. Stop and start. Swim and stretch. It is not hard to identify Dagny Knutson, a former swimming prodigy and American record holder in the 400-yard individual medley. She is the one with the green tattoo of a peacock feather running down the left side of her back, a product of a rebellious stage a couple of years ago, she said, her eyes dancing. 

Knutson, who turns 22 this week (Jan. 18), has a lot to smile about these days. Although the road was long and bumpy, she is in college on an athletic department originated grant-in-aid. She appears fit and happy and has left the door open for a return to competitive swimming. Because she turned pro and signed with an agent out of high school in 2010, Knutson cannot compete for Grand Canyon. The NCAA denied an appeal to restore her eligibility. But she can train with the several post-graduates in coach Steve Schaffer’s program, and she returned to her home state of North Dakota with the Antelopes last weekend.

It is not exactly the same college experience that, say, former USA Swimming teammate and roommate Missy Franklin has at the University of California, but it is something. She deserves it, Schaffer said.

"She could have gone to any university on a full ride — and she got robbed of that experience," said Schaffer said, whose program was consistently among the best in NCAA Division II before the school moved to Division I this year. 

I hate when kids have the opportunity, and in Dagny’s case, really have them steered in the wrong direction and taken from them. We can’t give her everything she would have had in her college experience, but we can give her as much of it as we have.

Steve Schaffer, Grand Canyon swimming coach

 "I hate when kids have the opportunity, and in Dagny’s case, really have them steered in the wrong direction and taken from them. We can’t give her everything she would have had in her college experience, but we can give her as much of it as we have."

Knutson took a wrong turn, she says now, when she decided at the urging of national team director Mark Schubert to pass up college and join the U.S. national team out of high school in Minot, N.D., about as far from the mainstream of competitive swimming as any place in the nation. It’s the kind of decision only the best of the best — those who can cash in on endorsement money, such as Franklin — have to face, and it is a decision Knutson said she would never make again. "It’€™s going to haunt me the rest of my life, probably, if I keep dwelling on the past," she told the New York Times.

She moved to California to train, but Schubert was fired shortly thereafter, and things went from bad to worse when coach Sean Hutchison also was dismissed. At that point, Knutson moved to Florida to train with Gregg Troy, Olympian Ryan Lochte’s coach. By then, she was hiding a secret — an eating disorder that was born out of a belief that she had to live up to the expectation of others. It eventually led her to retire and seek treatment in 2012. Compounding the pressure was the financial burden inherent in swimming at the top level. When she fell from the national rankings, she lost her stipend from USA Swimming. Meanwhile, her family had lost its home in Minot due to the 2011 flooding that ravaged much of North Dakota.

‘I feel like there are a lot of open doors, and I get a college experience that I have never had before, or at least the closest thing I can get to it. It’s been awesome.’ — Dagny Knutson.

Like all in the swimming community, Schaffer was aware of Knutson’s story, and during her NCAA appeal process, he went to Grand Canyon athletic director Keith Baker to see if there was anything the school could do to make up for the lost college years. His message: Grand Canyon did not create the problem, but that should not prevent it from providing a solution. Baker, who coached the Grand Canyon golf team to consecutive top 12 finishes in the NCAA tournament in 2006-08, immediately saw the benefit of having Knutson on campus.

"We would have a world-class athlete, someone with the drive and the talent to be in and around our student-athletes," said Baker, who hired former Phoenix Suns all-star Dan Majerle as the basketball coach last year. 

"It would be great for them. And we could provide something for Dagny that she had never had. We respect Steve a great deal. He does have a great heart for the students. I felt that if he felt comfortable to come to me with a request out of the norm, it was something important. Sometimes the university has the opportunity to help somebody and make their situation better."

Grand Canyon is a small, for-profit university in west Phoenix, and some may remember it as an NAIA basketball power in the mid-1970s. A scholarship is worth about $26,000 a year, but because Knutson and fellow post-graduate swimmer Marcus Schlesinger are staying with Schaffer and his wife, the school is providing about half that amount. Schaffer has received letters and emails from strangers applauding Grand Canyon’s decision, one saying that it was uplifting to see "that kind of goodness in the world."

Grand Canyon could be considered a safe haven for Knutson as she considers her career options. Her scholarship is tied only to academic performance, and she has accumulated about 80 hours toward a degree in elementary education after spending time at three previous junior colleges while also in training.

"I feel like there are a lot of open doors, and I get a college experience that I have never had before, or at least the closest thing I can get to it. It’s been awesome," Knutson said.

Is a return to competitive swimming in her future?

"I would like it to be," she said. "Right now I’m taking one day at a time, focusing on kind of getting in the routine of school and a new environment. So we’ll see. It would take a lot of commitment and a lot of dedication and support from others. I have those things. If I make that decision in the future, then … "

Freed from the competitive atmosphere, Grand Canyon’s Baker believes Knutson is in the best environment to mull those plans.

"It is more healthy for her to be in a situation to make that choice because it was what she wanted to do do, rather than something she had to do," Baker said.

Follow Jack Magruder on Twitter