Unique Path Series—Kayla Hutsell And Dani Klunk: Taking The Plunge From Division I To Division III Swimming

Posted on February 3rd, 2015 by

Gustavus Adolphus women’s swim team members, Kayla Hutsell and Dani Klunk’s stories became entwined when the two met as first-year roommates and fellow teammates at the University of Iowa in 2011. A strong friendship and support system were established between the two as Hutsell and Klunk contemplated critical decisions in regards to swimming and their post-secondary education.  

Saint Peter, Minn.— Upon entering the fall of their first year at the University of Iowa, Kayla Hutsell and Dani Klunk were excited for their careers as NCAA Division I swimmers to begin. Being that they were both swimmers, the university paired the women as roommates. An immediate friendship formed as the two delved into the rigorous lifestyle required of Division I athletes.


Hutsell and Klunk found a support system in each other as the two contemplated a series of critical decisions regarding their swimming careers and post-secondary education.

A series of pivotal events in the young women’s lives was instigated when Hutsell experienced a strange feeling in her shoulder while at practice about a month and a half into the 2011-2012 swim season.

“I was going to practices, and then there was one day where we did this long freestyle set and my shoulder started to feel weird,” Hutsell said. “Over the next couple weeks, the pain kept getting progressively worse, so I stopped swimming and lifting and made regular visits to the trainer.”

After traveling to the Twin Cities for an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon, Hutsell was diagnosed with scapular bursitis, a bone spur rubbing against her rib cage, which would likely end her collegiate swimming career if she did not have surgery.

Following the diagnosis, several factors caused Hutsell to contemplate her options so as to avoid an early retirement from swimming. Recognizing that there would not be an exact recovery period after the surgery, Hutsell wanted to be closer to home as she recuperated. Furthermore, the coaches were not as supportive of the recovery time as Hutsell would have liked, and the injury was taking away time that would have otherwise been spent bonding with her new teammates.

“I was talking to my mom and dad about possibilities and transferring came up,” said Hutsell. “I had never really thought about that until my parents told me that transferring was an option and that I didn’t have to stay at Iowa. I definitely wasn’t ready to give up swimming yet, so I looked into applying at D-III schools closer to home.”

After looking at Gustavus, the University of St. Thomas, and the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Hutsell decided on Gustavus. Several of Hutsell’s friends and teammates from high school attended the college and had nothing but positive things to say about the school. Upon the conclusion of her tour at Gustavus, Hutsell knew the choice was clear.

Hutsell competing as a member of the Gustavus swim team.

Hutsell competing as a member of the Gustavus swim team.

“I looked at Gustavus because I have a really good friend who goes here, and I knew a couple other people on the team too” said Hutsell. “When I came on a visit here I just loved it. I loved the coaches…I loved everything. It’s just so pretty. I was scared that it was going to be too small, but it has been perfect for me. It was probably one of the best, most life-changing decisions I’ve made so far.”

Although she did not have an injury to push her in the direction of Division III schools, Klunk began to second-guess her decision to swim at the Division I level.

“D-I swimming takes a lot of hard work, commitment, and time,” said Klunk. “I was tired from working so hard all the time in both practices and at school. On top of that I felt like I was in a bubble, and I was far away from my family so I got homesick a lot. While swimming programs are intense and competitive regardless of the level, in D-III programs the off-season is actually an off-season, which allows for the opportunity to be involved in other activities.”

A typical weekly practice schedule for Hutsell and Klunk at the University of Iowa consisted of an hour-long pool practice followed by an hour of weightlifting from 6-8 a.m., and another pool practice from 2-4 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Tuesdays and Thursdays, the team would swim from 1:45-4:15 p.m. On Saturdays when the team did not have a meet, there were additional practices from 7-10 a.m. Moreover, training during the off-season at the Division I level proved to be even more rigorous than that of competition season, as athletes do not need to be completely rested for meets.

Considering her future after college, Klunk was also concerned that the extensive time commitment required for Division I swimming would inhibit her from gaining any outside experiences that would help her in the professional world, especially in regards to applying to and attending medical school.

“I didn’t have much exposure to anything other than swimming,” said Klunk. “ I was worried that when swimming was over, I would feel lost because I didn’t have much experience elsewhere. I wanted to dedicate more time to focusing on my future career goals and the experiences necessary to get there.”

However, Klunk continued at the Division I school as a sophomore because she wanted to be sure that her negative sentiments were not simply a part of the transition to college.

“I didn’t transfer after freshman year because I wanted to make sure that my feelings were not a result of adjusting to college life,” Klunk said. “I didn’t want to look back and think that I didn’t give myself a full chance at it. Especially since I didn’t have a shoulder issue like Kayla.”

Hutsell and Klunk maintained contact and solidified their friendship throughout Hutsell's transfer to Gustavus.

Hutsell and Klunk maintained contact and solidified their friendship throughout Hutsell’s transfer to Gustavus.

As Hutsell transitioned to being a student-athlete at Gustavus, she maintained contact with Klunk, and would often relay how great an experience she was having.

“When I transferred, Dani and I still talked and kept in touch a lot,” said Hutsell. “I think that solidified our friendship so much. She also reached out to me about my transfer experience, asking where I looked and what I considered when I was deciding which school to transfer to. It made me happy that I was able to help her and that we became so close.”

In January 2013, Klunk traveled with a few teammates from the University of Iowa to watch Hutsell compete for Gustavus at a Division III meet in Iowa. It was after attending this event that Klunk truly considered transferring.

“Watching the meet is what really solidified transferring for me,” Klunk said. “That was the first time I was exposed to the [Gustavus] team. Everyone was cheering…it was very loud. It was a totally different atmosphere than D-I. D-I is so intense and that’s just not my personality. I thought that the atmosphere at the meet that day fit my personality better. I had recognized before that I would be able to be involved in more activities than just swimming if I came to a school like Gustavus, but seeing the atmosphere at the swim meet confirmed my desire to transfer.”

During the spring of 2013, Klunk came to Gustavus for a visit and stayed with Hutsell. However, as Klunk explored the campus and spent time with the team, she began to second guess whether or not she wanted to transfer. Klunk felt strange because people referred to her as a ‘recruit’, she was uncomfortable with idea of transferring going into her junior year, and she was unsure about the small size of the school. In the middle of her visit, Klunk called her mother, Chris, to voice these concerns. Following the conversation, Klunk was convinced that it was important to finish the visit and speak with head swimming and diving coach, Jon Carlson.

“After I talked to Jon I changed my mind 100 percent again,” Klunk said. “I had just been scared because I was already a junior. The conversation we had made it seem like he believed in me more than anyone had in the past two years. In high school my coach was highly supportive like that, and it was really nice to hear someone else have the same faith in me. I decided I wanted to end my swimming career with that…to go out loving swimming and not just going through the motions.”

When Carlson acknowledged some of the less accomplished members of the swim team during their conversation, Klunk was further impressed by the coach and inclined to transfer to Gustavus.


Hutsell (third from left) and Klunk (second from right) appreciate the friendships and opportunities for involvement granted through their membership in groups such as the Delta Phi Omega sorority at Gustavus.

“At the D-I level the best athletes are looked at the most,” said Klunk. “I liked that when I talked to Jon, he didn’t just talk about the fastest people. Instead, he told me stories of swimmers who weren’t the best in their event. I really appreciated that he looked at everyone on the team, which is a hard thing to do when the team is so big.”

In the midst of Hutsell and Klunk’s final swim season, the two women are grateful for the circumstances that led them to the tight-knit swimming community and opportunities for a well-balanced life provided by a school such as Gustavus. Outside of swimming, Hutsell and Klunk keep a rounded, satisfying schedule, filled with both academics and extra-curriculars. Hutsell is working on finishing a Sociology/Anthropology major and a Peace Studies minor, has taken on the responsibilities of Pledge Co-Chair, Constitution Co-Chair, and Vice-President of Banquet for the Delta Phi Omega sorority, and just finished a term as the Co-President of Gustavus’ Inter Greek Senate. Klunk is also an active member of the Deltas, as well as a volunteer for a club called Gustie Buddies, and is a Psychology major.

Throughout their time at Gustavus, Hutsell and Klunk have left a mark on the Gustavus swimming & diving program. During the 2012-13 season, Hutsell was named an All-Conference honoree in both the the 200 and 400-yard medley relays, an All-American in the 400-yard medley relay and set a school-record for the 200 and 400-yard medley relays. She has been named to the All-Conference Team in her first two years at Gustavus, and now serves as a team captain. Klunk, also a captain this season, concluded her first year at the Division-III level by earning a place on both the  All-Conference and All-America Teams.  She won MIAC titles in the 200-yard butterfly and 200-yard IM and broke school records in the 100 and 200-yard butterfly, 200-yard IM, 200 and 400-yard medley relay, and the 200 and 400-yard freestyle relay.

The women praise the support that each team member exhibits toward fellow swimmers’ talents both in and out of the pool.

“The best thing about the swim team is that everyone is so talented at different things outside of swimming,” said Klunk. “I think that is so cool because not everyone can be the best swimmer, but everyone’s the best at something. I really like that.”

“You can talk to anyone on the swim team and you know something about each person,” added Hutsell. “I love how close the team is here. Every Friday we do teammate appreciation. And half the conversation will be about practices in the pool, but the other half will be things like, ‘so and so helped me study for this, I really appreciated that.’ Or, ‘you sang in the choir and it was beautiful.’”

It is this bond, support, and openness within the Gustavus swimming and diving team that pushes Hutsell, Klunk, and the rest of the group to give a full effort. The pair notes that the team, its coaches, and the atmosphere of the program motivate them to continue their swimming careers.

“Swimming at Gustavus has helped me to focus less on the individual aspects of the sport and more on the team,” said Hutsell. “Without the support and encouragement of both my teammates and coaches, I probably wouldn’t be swimming anymore.”

The swimming and diving team, its coaches, and the atmosphere of the program motivate Hutsell and Klunk to continue their swimming careers.


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