PHOENIX — This was supposed to be the year Dagny Knutson became a household name by thrashing the competition in the pool in Rio de Janeiro.
In 2010, Knutson was widely considered the next breakout American swimming star. At the urging of USA Swimming officials, she said, Knutson turned down a college scholarship and entrusted her career to the Olympic national governing body for the sport.
And then it all went awry.
In six years, Knutson has gone from odds-on Olympic star to cautionary tale through a series of twists and turns including a fired coach, an eating disorder and an unresolved fraud lawsuit against an Olympic sports insider who Knutson claims betrayed her to maintain friendships with USA Swimming officials.
Knutson’s story, according to her and her lawyers, evinces the massive power imbalance in Olympic sports, where management enjoys monopoly control and athletes have little leverage.
“As athletes, we have to trust USA Swimming has our best interests at heart. And when they take advantage of that, we can’t do anything about it . . . Because they have all the power,” Knutson said. “I can’t think of any other explanation for why they did what they did, other than they don’t care.”
USA Swimming declined to comment for this story. In a deposition, USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus blamed Knutson’s situation on a former coach who made promises he wasn’t authorized to make.
“USA Swimming likes to do the right thing. We hang our hat on that,” Wielgus said.
Today, Knutson is a 24-year-old counselor for college students in Phoenix, living in a one-bedroom apartment with no trace of her former life as a world-class swimmer. The medals and Team USA garb are packed in boxes in her mother’s North Dakota home.
“She was just a thoroughbred that they wanted to put out to pasture, or get rid of,” said her mother, Ronda Knutson. “I’m just sickened by it.”
Born in 1992, Knutson grew up in Minot, N.D., a town of about 35,000 where neighbors leave garage doors open and front doors unlocked. Inspired by watching the 2000 Sydney Olympics with her father, Knutson started swimming competitively at age 9.
When she was 12, Knutson set four state records, earning a mention in Sports Illustrated. When she was 16, Knutson broke the American record in the 400-yard individual medley and won six gold medals at a junior international swimming event, posting times that would have made her competitive at the Beijing Olympics the previous year.
Her performances brought visits from USA Swimming officials to northern North Dakota, a region not known for producing elite swimmers. The only Olympic-size pool in the area was outdoors and lacked lights. Jim Knutson, an Army veteran and nurse, struck a deal for Dagny to swim there at night in the summer. Jim provided the lights by parking his Jeep near the pool.
“It’s just so different than the typical path,” Mark Schubert, the venerated, longtime Olympic swimming coach, told The Washington Post in 2009 about Knutson. “It kind of gives everybody hope.”
In early 2010, Schubert flew to Minot with a proposition for Knutson and her parents. Knutson had accepted a full athletic scholarship from Auburn University, but had just learned the coach who recruited her was leaving. Dozens of other colleges were interested in her, but Schubert recommended another option, according to Knutson: She could turn professional and train at one of USA Swimming’s “Centers of Excellence,” training facilities Schubert developed.
Knutson would get more individualized attention, Schubert told her, and USA Swimming would offer the equivalent of a full scholarship, covering her tuition, room and living costs through the 2016 Olympics.
Her parents had doubts, but after Dagny visited the Center for Excellence in Fullerton, Calif., she was convinced. She moved there in the summer of 2010 and enrolled in community college. The Knutsons never asked Schubert to put the offer in writing, a decision they would later regret.
“I don’t know if you want to call us naive or what, but we just had no reason to believe they wouldn’t do this,” Ronda Knutson said.
In November 2010, USA Swimming abruptly fired Schubert. No reason was given publicly, but Schubert and Wielgus’s relationship reportedly had soured.
With Schubert gone, Knutson reached out to USA Swimming officials about her rent and tuition. It quickly became apparent they had no idea what Schubert had promised her.
Headquartered in Colorado Springs, USA Swimming oversees nearly every level of the sport domestically and manages Team USA at the Olympics and other international events. In 2010, USA Swimming reported $26.4 million in revenue and paid Wielgus $781,000 and Schubert $368,000.
Team USA swimmers, though, made stipends of $1,750 per month. Almost immediately, court records show, Wielgus expressed concern about the cost of the deal Knutson said she’d been promised.
On Nov. 11, 2010, Wielgus emailed several other USA Swimming officials. “Mark apparently made promises . . . to Dagny that: (a) he did not make me or others aware of; and (b) he did not have the authority to make,” he wrote.
Schubert denied guaranteeing Knutson tuition support after the 2012 Olympics, but both Knutson’s parents and two other witnesses to the meeting supported Dagny’s claims.
Knutson’s agent connected her with Richard Foster, a lawyer well-known in Olympic circles. Foster has never won a medal or made an Olympic team, but he’s one of many members of the “Olympic movement” who has parlayed his relationships into income over the years.
A collegiate water polo player, Foster has served in various capacities for USA Water Polo, the United States Olympic Committee, and FINA, the global organization that oversees international swimming. He wrote a book for Olympic legend Mark Spitz, secured a consulting position with a pool manufacturer and gained clients including several Olympic swimmers and Schubert, the famed coach.
From the beginning of his negotiations on Knutson’s behalf, records show, Foster made clear to USA Swimming officials they did not need to worry about a lawsuit from Knutson.
“Chuck: As you know, I represent a lot of athletes, including a fairly large group of swimmers,” Foster wrote Wielgus on Nov. 16, 2010. “If an issue comes up, I will discuss it with you in hopes of resolving the issue. I won’t however get involved with litigation against USA Swimming. I have too many friends in the organization, including you.”
The next day, Foster emailed Wielgus to let him know an Associated Press reporter had contacted him. Word of Knutson’s situation had started to circulate. “I told the reporter I couldn’t comment,” Foster wrote.
After months of negotiations, Foster emailed Knutson what he termed the “final offer”: USA Swimming would cover Knutson’s college costs through 2016, but only if she maintained a spot in either the top 25 of the world or top three in the United States in one Olympic event.
Before signing, Knutson balked at the performance requirement. She didn’t like the idea that if she had a bad year, or got hurt, she’d lose her college money.
As her lawyer, Foster replied, “A performance marker is not unreasonable.” A few days later, he sent over the contract. “Dagny: We wanted to get a little more up front, but this is a good deal,” he wrote. She signed it.
At first, things went well. Knutson moved to Gainesville, Fla., attended community college and trained under University of Florida Coach Gregg Troy. In 2011, she won a gold medal at the FINA World Championships as part of the 800-meter freestyle relay team that included Missy Franklin.
In 2012, a private struggle Knutson had been dealing with burst into public view. She had an eating disorder — bulimia — marked by periods of binging followed by purging, or making herself throw up. Studies have shown eating disorder rates are higher among athletes, particularly women, than the general population.
While Franklin won four gold medals at the London Olympics, Knutson cycled through inpatient and outpatient therapy. By the fall of 2012, her condition stabilized, Knutson asked USA Swimming to start her tuition assistance at a college in North Dakota, closer to home.
Lindsay Mintenko, USA Swimming’s national team director, told Knutson her tuition support was over, because she’d fallen from the world rankings while in treatment.
Without financial assistance, Knutson’s parents struggled to pay tuition and her travel and training costs as she tried to regain a national team spot . Knutson petitioned the NCAA to restore her amateur status, so she could get another scholarship, but her appeal was denied. She eventually retired from competitive swimming.
In 2014, a friend connected Knutson with Bob Allard, a San Jose attorney well-known in Olympic circles for his outspoken criticism of USA Swimming for how it’s handled sex-abuse prevention.
Allard felt that Knutson had viable fraud lawsuits against USA Swimming and Schubert, but as part of the deal Foster negotiated, Knutson had agreed not to sue either.
There was one person she could still sue, though: Foster.
“Until I hired Bob, I knew I had gotten screwed over, but I didn’t know how,” Knutson said. “I thought it was all my fault.”
Last June, as Knutson’s former teammates and other Olympic hopefuls prepared for U.S. trials, Knutson sat in a California courtroom, looking on as Allard made his opening argument.
“This is a case about a well-connected lawyer in the aquatics industry who takes on, as a client, a young and vulnerable potential Olympic champion, but places her interests well behind those of his friends, his political allies and his business associates,” Allard told the jury. “That’s what this case is all about: a lawyer selling out his client.”
Foster pointed out the deal he got Knutson was the most lucrative USA Swimming had ever given a swimmer. When asked about his email assuring Wielgus he would never sue, Foster said his friendships help him and his clients.
“I can achieve good results negotiating with USA Swimming or any sport because of my involvement in the Olympic movement . . . They will take my calls,” Foster testified. “My personal relationship with them allows me access and to negotiate those deals. So if I file a lawsuit against them, I think that access is going to be gone.”
When asked why he didn’t comment to the AP reporter or ask the Knutsons if they wanted to take their story public, Foster explained that “throwing Mr. Wielgus under the bus with the press . . . could have resulted in a very dangerous outcome for Dagny.”
Allard hired a malpractice law expert, Alison Buchanan, who concluded Foster violated ethical guidelines by not listing to Knutson all his conflicts of interest in writing. Foster also violated his duty to be a “zealous advocate” for Knutson, Buchanan testified.
“He wasn’t really working within her best interest,” Buchanan said. “I didn’t see any communications between Mr. Foster and USA Swimming where he took a hard stance or threatened litigation. Instead he said, ‘I would never sue you’ . . . That, to me, is the opposite of zealous advocacy.”
The jurors found Foster committed a breach of fiduciary duty and fraud, and they awarded Knutson $617,800. In October, however, the judge threw out the verdict and ordered a new trial. The judge ruled that Knutson failed to prove a different lawyer could have gotten her a better deal. Allard is appealing.
In a recent phone interview, Foster said Knutson’s anger at him is misguided.
“I worked for her, for free, out of the goodness of my heart,” Foster said. “She’d been treated badly by USA Swimming. And I got her a good deal.”
In Olympic sports, Foster pointed out, national governing bodies rarely pay athletes much, and multiyear contracts are almost nonexistent.
“USA Swimming would not back down. They said, ‘We’re putting up a lot of money for an athlete that hasn’t even medaled yet,’ ” Foster said. “Those performance markers for her were not unreasonable . . . She was one of the best swimmers in the world.”
In April, Knutson graduated from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, with a degree in sports management. She works at the school as a counselor, helping students apply for financial aid and pick majors.
On weekends, she volunteers as a coach for the new swim team at a small Christian college nearby. It’s a small team of mostly novice swimmers, and Knutson thinks they don’t know her background. She doesn’t swim anymore; she prefers running.
“It feels like another human swam. It doesn’t feel like it was me. I used to have this self-confidence and this pride . . . I felt unstoppable,” she said. “I don’t feel that way anymore.”
During the Olympics this summer, Knutson was busy at work, so she missed most of it. She kept track online, to see how her former teammates fared.
One night, she watched highlights on her phone as she walked to her car after a long day at the office. In Rio that day, 23-year-old Maya DiRado won an upset gold medal in the 200 backstroke. DiRado also silvered in two of Knutson’s old events, the 200 and 400 individual medley. Knutson was thrilled for DiRado, her former teammate from the junior national team.
As Knutson drove home that night, she wept.