As 17-year-oldDagny Knutson stood on the blocks along with six 2008 Olympians for the finalof the Santa Clara International Grand Prix 400-meter individual medley lastSaturday, her coach, Kathy Aspaas, scribbled down the number she expected tosee: 4:39. When Knutson blew past that mark to finish in a personal-best4:36.02, second to Beijing silver medalist Kirsty Coventry's 4:32.15, Aspaaswhooped and said, "That's a highlight."
Knutson has had alot of those in the last six months. No U.S. swimmer has risen faster—or from amore unlikely place—to become one of the favorites to make the worldchampionship team next month. Knutson hails from a state not exactly known forproducing world-class swimmers: North Dakota. She started as a nine-year-old ata club in Minot; within three years she and her mother, Ronda, were scouringthe northern plains for worthy competition while her father, Jim, pulled extrashifts as a nursing-home nurse to pay for their travels. Knutson swam in somany meets in Canada that she was once mistakenly ranked among that country'stop 12-year-olds.
Getting in enoughpractice—Knutson swims up to 80,000 yards a week—has been a challenge too. Inseason she trains with the girls' team at Minot High, where she will be asenior this fall. Otherwise she squeezes in extra sessions at Minot State's25-yard pool and at the 50-meter outdoor community pool during North Dakota'sbrief summers. In the past Knutson has churned out laps by moonlight or by carheadlights as her parents stood on the pool deck swatting mosquitoes. "Thebugs 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 Iencourage her to take a day off, she says, 'I'm sure nobody else is taking aday off at the next level,'" says Aspaas. Knutson is equally dedicatedduring the six hours a week she spends with a personal trainer. Among otherunusual exercises, she runs on a supertreadmill with stretch cords attached toher 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 monthshe won four gold medals at the Charlotte UltraSwim. Knutson's long-term goalis to win gold at the 2012 Games in London. Short-term, she is focusing onmaking the world championships team at the U.S. trials in Indianapolis nextmonth—and on proving a point: "You can have success no matter where youcome from."
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In his first two races at Santa Clara, Michael Phelps(below) entered a pair of events he had no intention of competing in at theworld championships in Rome next month. His exhaustion in the last 150 metersof the 400-meter freestyle last Saturday—while feeling what he called"pretty serious pain," he hung on to take gold in 3:48.05—solidifiedhis decision to skip that race for the rest of the summer (and possiblyforever). But the 200-meter butterfly, an event he had barely trained for, maynow figure in his plans for Rome: Phelps finished in 1:54.31 last Friday to winby 5.67 seconds. "That swim was surprisingly good," says his coach, BobBowman. "It makes you think about things."
Photographs by PETER READ MILLER
WITHIN REACH After finishing second in the 400 IM at Santa Clara, Knutson has her sights set on the U.S. trials next month.
Photograph by PETER READ MILLER