World-class swimmer finds another passion as GCU grad
By Laurie Merrill
GCU News Bureau
Dagny Knutson, a former world-class swimmer and winner of numerous medals and trophies, prizes her Grand Canyon University education above all the rest.
The athlete whose name was once synonymous with swimmers Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky graduated Friday from GCU’s Colangelo College of Business with a bachelor’s degree in sports management and a minor in entrepreneurial studies.
But more important, Knutson, 24, gained a positive perspective from GCU that helped her learn about her strengths and abilities and moved her closer to discovering her purpose in life.
And despite her former spot in the limelight as an Olympic-level athlete, she has learned that there is more to life than the world of competitive swimming.
“When I got to GCU, it was a complex situation, to be sure,” Knutson said. “I ended up loving it. As time went on, I fell in love with it more and more and more.”
Knutson, of Minot, N.D., had it tougher than many young athletes, said Steve Shaffer, the men’s and women’s swimming and diving coach who was instrumental in helping Knutson attend GCU.
Bad advice, financial strife and family divisiveness were all part of Knutson’s story, but probably the most destructive symptom was an eating disorder triggered in part by the pressure of competitive swimming.
“She was a star. She could have gone anywhere on a full scholarship,” Schaffer said. “By the time she was 18, her life was a mess.”
Various publications have chronicled Knutson’s decision to go pro after high school instead of to college. When she signed with an agent, she lost her chance to compete in the NCAA.
And when her eating disorder threatened her professional swimming success, she was adrift, working as an assistant swim coach in a North Dakota high school, Schaffer said. By this time, she had stopped training.
“I really struggled at that time to even like swimming,” she said. “I was not treating my body well… There was a lot of pressure for someone who is 18 or 19 and no scholarship to fall back on.”
Schaffer was moved by Knutson’s plight, and even though she wouldn’t be able to swim for GCU — or any other college, ever — he reached out to her with a scholarship offer.
“I knew about Knutson’s situation and wanted to try to help,” he said, and he appealed to senior associate athletic director Keith Baker, who talked with the GCU leadership team.
“I said, we didn’t create the problem, but we can fix it,” Schaffer said. “It is the beauty of working at a place like GCU that they said yes.”
Knutson enrolled in spring semester 2014, was student manager of the swim team and resumed training until she realized it made her eating disorder worse.
“GCU was sort of my ‘comeback’ opportunity,” Knutson said. “I knew it was time to stop, because swimming became something that enabled my eating disorder and my passion for the sport had gone away. I was ready for whatever life had next for me.”
“I said, ‘OK then, don’t swim anymore,’” Schaffer said. “She blossomed as a young woman.”
Knutson discovered she is passionate about women’s rights, athlete’s equality and fighting child exploitation. She was selected to go on a mission to Thailand and Cambodia with the May 2016 Destiny Rescue Vision Trip, for which she raised $3,500.
“We are going over there to be a witness of sex trafficking, interact with children who have been rescued and be able to come back to the United States and be better advocates for that cause,” she said.
Knutson is also eager to return to GCU to earn a master’s degree in public administration with an emphasis on government and policy. She has applied, and is hoping for the best.
That will make Schaffer very happy. “She’s a remarkable young woman,” he said. “She is just a delight.”
Contact Laurie Merrill at (602) 639-6511 or [email protected]