As 17-year-old Dagny Knutson stood on the blocks along with six 2008 Olympians for the final of the Santa Clara International Grand Prix 400-meter individual medley last Saturday, her coach, Kathy Aspaas, scribbled down the number she expected to see: 4:39. When Knutson blew past that mark to finish in a personal-best 4:36.02, second to Beijing silver medalist Kirsty Coventry's 4:32.15, Aspaas whooped and said, "That's a highlight."
Knutson has had a lot of those in the last six months. No U.S. swimmer has risen faster—or from a more unlikely place—to become one of the favorites to make the world championship team next month. Knutson hails from a state not exactly known for producing world-class swimmers: North Dakota. She started as a nine-year-old at a club in Minot; within three years she and her mother, Ronda, were scouring the northern plains for worthy competition while her father, Jim, pulled extra shifts as a nursing-home nurse to pay for their travels. Knutson swam in so many meets in Canada that she was once mistakenly ranked among that country's top 12-year-olds.
Getting in enough practice—Knutson swims up to 80,000 yards a week—has been a challenge too. In season she trains with the girls' team at Minot High, where she will be a senior this fall. Otherwise she squeezes in extra sessions at Minot State's 25-yard pool and at the 50-meter outdoor community pool during North Dakota's brief summers. In the past Knutson has churned out laps by moonlight or by car headlights as her parents stood on the pool deck swatting mosquitoes. "The bugs would be so bad I'd stay underwater as long as I could," says Knutson. "If I sat on the wall, they'd attack."
"Even if I encourage her to take a day off, she says, 'I'm sure nobody else is taking a day off at the next level,'" says Aspaas. Knutson is equally dedicated during the six hours a week she spends with a personal trainer. Among other unusual exercises, she runs on a supertreadmill with stretch cords attached to her thighs and calves to increase her hip flexion and propulsion.
Last December, Knutson broke Katie Hoff's American record in the 400-yard IM, and last month she won four gold medals at the Charlotte UltraSwim. Knutson's long-term goal is to win gold at the 2012 Games in London. Short-term, she is focusing on making the world championships team at the U.S. trials in Indianapolis next month—and on proving a point: "You can have success no matter where you come from."
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