MINOT, N.D. — The fastest-rising, most jaw-dropping teenage swimmer in the United States trains virtually alone in this frigid, working-class city about 55 miles from the Canadian border, where snowbanks as tall as SUVs line neighborhood streets, rim parking lots and force residents to dig out their mailboxes.
Under milky white skies that cloak the town's low-slung, cinderblock buildings, only a handful more than a few stories high, Dagny Knutson races from workout to workout in a grime-streaked 1998 Ford Expedition with 187,000 miles on it, faithfully following an unorthodox and multifaceted training regimen that involves a private swim coach and personal trainer.
Her emergence from a town swamped with 60 inches of snowfall since November and steeled to sub-zero temperatures has excited USA Swimming officials, two of whom traveled here recently to observe her training. Though they arrived skeptical that anyone so far from an elite swimming center could have the faintest idea how to build a swim champion, they left impressed with the sophistication and quality of Knutson's personal program and coaching, National Team Director Mark Schubert said.
And they offered this piece of advice: Keep doing what you're doing.
“It's just so different than the typical path,” Schubert said. “It kind of gives everybody hope.”
Knutson (pronounced Kah-NUTE-son), 17, won seven gold medals in January during the Junior Pan Pacific Championships in Guam, where she swam the 200-meter individual medley in a time (2 minutes 10.79 seconds) that would have earned her fifth place at the Beijing Olympics. Her times in the 200 freestyle (1:57.73) and 400 individual medley (4:40.10) would have ranked her seventh and eighth, respectively.
A month earlier at the U.S. national short-course championships in Atlanta, she beat Olympic star Katie Hoff's one-year-old American record in the 400-yard individual medley by .04 of a second with a time of 4:00.62. A month before that, Knutson, a junior at Minot High, broke three national high school records, including one set in 1988 by Janet Evans.
“I didn't see this coming,” Knutson said. “I've been really focused, really just working hard to reach the goals I have in mind.”
In January, the U.S. Olympic Committee awarded Knutson funding it usually reserves for members of national teams.
“She doesn't seem to be afraid to race anybody or intimidated by anybody,” Schubert said. “Those are really spectacular times. You always wonder if somebody who can swim times like that can do it against really good competition. . . . She answered all of those questions at the nationals [in Atlanta]. She answered all of them.”
To Knutson, more remain. Thanks in part to the USOC funding, she will travel to several grand prix events in the coming months, the first the USA Swimming Austin Grand Prix, which begins Thursday. She will fly to Indianapolis in July for the U.S. championships, the qualifying event for the world championships in Rome later that month.
“I don't have any limits,” Knutson said. “I think if I just keep going like I've been going, I can probably achieve anything I want.”
Early to Rise
Swim coach Kathy Aspaas unlocked the door to the Minot High gymnasium at 5:54 on a recent morning as Knutson silently emerged from the darkness of the parking lot, bundled in a hooded parka.
It was already 14 degrees, above the previous day's high of 9, so Knutson hadn't had to warm up her Expedition as long as usual before driving from her parents' split-level home. Without a word, she followed Aspaas inside. Two other high school girls also trudged in, as did a pair of boys and a 52-year-old woman.
Aspaas has helped the Minot High girls' swimming team win 16 state titles since 1975. As the swimmers headed into the locker rooms to change, she pushed through a door, shed her coat and gloves and began writing the details of a swim workout on a large whiteboard.
In moments, her daily community education class called “Morning Conditioning Swim” would get underway. Knutson, who trains with whoever shows up, makes for an incongruous centerpiece; typical attendees include a few adults in their 50s.
Aspaas began offering the class, which costs $30 a month, to give Knutson a means of meeting her training goals without actually paying for the pool time, since neither the high school program nor local swim club offered frequent enough sessions.
In the afternoons or evenings, Knutson swims at Minot State University, where she has been offered free use of its 25-yard pool during its “open swim” hours. Since the pool is available to students and faculty, a handful of people inevitably splash around while Knutson ticks off the elements of each day's workout. Once, the entire MSU baseball team showed up for low-impact water training. They ran laps in circles, sending massive waves into Knutson's lane.
During this particular week in early February, Knutson intended to swim 65,000 yards. A light week.
Aspaas and Knutson's parents realized long ago it was best to provide Knutson with a regular training schedule, even one a bit inconvenient and unconventional. “If I say, 'We're not going to practice today,' she will go on her own to the YWCA or the youth center or something,” Aspaas said. “She just won't miss.”
In addition to 11 swim practices a week, Knutson undergoes two hours of dry-land training three nights weekly with Jason Blackburn, who owns a sprawling facility called Advanced Sports Kinetics that he built out of an old church. Blackburn created a program specifically for Knutson four years ago; every exercise is designed to mimic her body's movement in the pool.
“She's never missed training, she's never missed a practice,” Blackburn said. “She comes on holidays; she works out on Christmas. She's got a constitution that is unflappable. When she first walked through the door, there was something that was just different about her. . . . Whatever she had to do, she just did it. No matter what.”
Knutson speculates her swimming costs her parents more than $20,000 annually; they say they don't even want to add up the numbers.
When Knutson was younger, her parents drove her to meets all over south-central Canada and as far as Washington state in search of credible competition, frequently putting more than 1,000 miles on their car in a single weekend. As their daughter qualified for regional and then national championships, the longer flights brought additional costs, and her year-round participation in the fitness club run by Blackburn also strained their wallets, even though he, like Aspaas, offered his services at a discount.
Before receiving the stipend from the USOC, the Knutsons paid Aspaas a substantial sum for them, but one that worked out to just more than $4 an hour to her. It was a figure that made Jim Knutson wince with
embarrassment when he revealed it. “Both of them are paid not what you would think,” Knutson said, “not what they are worth.”
A former running back at the University of North Dakota, Jim Knutson works as a registered nurse at a local nursing home. Dagny's mother, Ronda Knutson, a former basketball player at the University of Louisville, is the youth programs director at the Minot Air Force Base.
For years, Jim Knutson said, he has worked as many double shifts as he can land.
“My dad, he works so much overtime, trying to pay for Kathy's plane tickets, my mother's plane tickets and my plane tickets, and food and hotel,” Dagny Knutson said. “All three of us and Kathy and my dry-land trainer, we're all in it together.”
Her parents “have seen her potential and they do whatever they need to do to get her to this level,” Aspaas said. “The sacrifices they've made, it's crazy.”
As participants in the morning conditioning swim performed their workouts, Aspaas chatted with one of the boys in the water, a high school senior. The boy reported that his best time in the 500-yard freestyle was the 5:06 he had swum at the previous year's state high school championships. He had finished second.
Someone asked Aspaas: Could that young man beat Knutson?
Aspaas looked apologetic. If the record keepers would allow it, Knutson would hold three North Dakota high school state swimming records — for boys.
“She's at 4:33,” she said, cringing. “There isn't anyone right now that can hang with her.”
Knutson's parents did not anticipate her success in the water. In her early childhood, it was clear she had great speed and coordination, but her parents figured she would devote herself to basketball or another traditional team sport. That changed when they signed her up for sessions with the Minot Swim Club at 9 1/2 . A year after she started, Knutson won several races in her first zone championships in Minneapolis.
“It got her hooked and it got me and my wife hooked,” Jim Knutson said. “I'll be the first one to admit it. It was so exciting.”
The sense of excitement was soon replaced by anxiety. Jim and Ronda feared they would be unable to meet their daughter's needs in a town not terribly equipped to produce an elite swimmer. Jim Knutson, who grew up just north of Minot, a town of about 35,000, began investigating local fitness facilities, convinced from his own athletic experience that workouts outside of the water would help her gain an edge. Just 10 when she started regular training sessions at a local gym, Dagny embraced the challenge.
For a while, she swam only at the practices offered by the high school team (she made the varsity in the seventh grade) or the Minot Swim Club. But she became convinced she wasn't doing enough after her first U.S. junior national championships in Irvine, Calif., when, at 14, she advanced to just one final and finished the meet ranked 76th among 128 entrants.
After the competition, “I couldn't find her,” Ronda Knutson said. “When I did find her, she was just sobbing. . . . Ever since that meet, I honestly think it was a turning point.”
It was. Knutson began printing out swimming workouts from the Internet and supplementing her formal practices with improvised training at the YWCA, the pool at the Minot Air Force Base or after-hours laps at the outdoor community pool in the summer. On those occasions, her father would park his Jeep next to the pool and turn on his headlights so she could see.
“I wasn't getting enough,” Knutson said. “When I was 13, I don't think I improved as much as I would have liked.”
The family hadn't yet hired Aspaas as a personal coach, so Knutson relied largely on her parents. They earned their coaching certification so they could stand on the deck with her at meets. When she trained at random facilities at odd hours, they would sit nearby with a stopwatch, studying her technique and reading off drills.
“I don't really know what drives her at times, to tell you the truth,” Jim Knutson said. “Early on, we pushed her, but certainly Dagny would agree, as time went on, she's been pushing us.”
Said Dagny: “I don't want to go two days without swimming — I don't know why. . . . Everything didn't really work out at first. It took some time. When my times started dropping, it did confirm I was doing the right thing.”
Still Working Out
When Dagny Knutson arrived at Minot State on a recent weeknight, the pool was filled with noisy preschoolers in the middle of a swim lesson. Aspaas yanked a lane-line across the 25-yard pool to give Knutson her own space and perched a Diet Coke near one end.
It was well after 6 by the time the children had filed out and Knutson dived in to commence the day's third and final workout, a second 5,500-yard swim.
“I haven't found it boring yet,” Knutson said. “At times practices get long, lap after lap, but there's always a reason why I'm doing it.”
As Knutson churned up the water, Aspaas, a full-time teacher at Minot High, marveled that she would again put in another 14-hour day. Aspaas thought she had retired as a swim coach when she quit her high school post in 2000. Two years later, however, she returned as an assistant.
That's when she met Knutson.
Aspaas's ambition and spirit for the sport haven't been the same since.
In her 30 years of coaching in the town in which she grew up, she never imagined she could help produce an athlete ranked among the world's best.
Knutson “is saying, 'I'm doing this, so do it with me,' ” Aspaas said. “I've learned through her that this is what it takes to do this. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought this is possible.”
As the clock ticked past 8, Knutson's mother, who had watched the workout from one of several rows of bleacher seating, used a squeegee to clean water from the sides of the pool, then headed to Subway to get Knutson what serves as her dinner about three nights per week: a foot-long sandwich loaded with vegetables.
In the last year, at least, the long training days have brought great rewards.
“If she can keep everything in perspective, and keep enjoying the journey . . . this summer will be a big step for her,” Schubert said. “There's no doubt in my mind if she makes the world championship team, she will be successful” in Rome.
At nearly 9, 15 hours after her departure that morning, Knutson slid into a chair in front of the family's wooden dinner table, her work for the day finally done. She unwrapped a foot-long turkey sandwich and devoured it, then assembled a peanut-butter-and-honey sandwich on potato bread, and ate that, too. She figures she consumes about 5,000 calories daily, yet still maintains her weight at about 142 pounds — she stands 5 feet 9 inches — with just over 12.5 percent body fat.
After dinner, she climbed the stairs to begin the day's final challenge: homework. In one of the upper rooms, her computer desk seemed all but obscured by thousands of ribbons, medals, trophies and plaques displayed on shelves, tie racks and bulletin boards.
Virtually wallpapered with various honors, the walls bore just one empty rectangular spot above the computer's monitor.
Knutson has cleared that space for more.