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Athletes take center stage on 'Dancing With the Stars'

The Pittsburgh Steelers' Hines Ward has a good shot to become the sixth athlete to win the dancing competition, which is in its 12th season.

May 22, 2011|By Diane Pucin
  • Steelers receiver Hines Ward and dance partner Kym Johnson compete during an episode of "Dancing with the Stars." Ward has a chance to become the sixth athlete to win the celebrity dancing competition.
Steelers receiver Hines Ward and dance partner Kym Johnson compete during… (Adam Taylor / ABC )

Emmitt Smith was the first athlete to win "Dancing With the Stars." That was in Season 3, after Jerry Rice finished second in Season 2 to Drew Lachey, the less famous but maybe more talented younger brother of singer Nick Lachey (who used to hang out with USC quarterback Matt Leinart, but that's a whole other reality show).

Since then, four other athletes have won the mirror-ball trophy given to the winning couple and, counting Pittsburgh Steelers great Hines Ward on Monday night, 12 have made it to the final three.

Ward and his partner, Kym Johnson, provided the most dramatic moment of any season of the top-rated show this spring when Johnson's head slammed against the floor during a rehearsal two weeks ago.

But mostly, ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" has been full of both fun and unexpected competitiveness.

Retired NFL star Michael Irvin, now a commentator for NFL Network, was one of the four athletes featured in Season 9 (no athlete made it to the final three).

As most football fans know, Irvin does not lack for confidence and he did not doubt himself as a dancer until he stepped onto the stage for the first time, ready to do the cha-cha-cha.

"When I started," Irvin said, "I thought, 'I'm going to win this thing. I'm a wide receiver, coordinated, I'm tall, I look good in those outfits, how hard can it be?' Then the first time I went out on that stage, I was the scaredest guy in the world. Who knew?

"My partner had tried to warn me and I said, 'I'm Michael Irvin. Hundreds of thousands of people — millions of people — watched me play football.' And then when the lights came on, oh, my God."

Irvin's favorite dance was the paso doble. Irvin played the bullfighter, his partner, Anna Demidova, was the bull and, Irvin said, "I don't know if I've ever had that much fun."

Smith was a teammate of Irvin's with the Dallas Cowboys, and Irvin has a suggestion for another of his Cowboys teammates: "Troy Aikman needs to get on the show," he said.

Warren Sapp, another former NFL player, finished second in Season 7 with Johnson, Ward's partner this season. Sapp was a sweaty, smiling, hip-swiveling, butt-shaking charmer with the Australian dancer.

Sapp said he embraced "the sequins and the steps," even though he started out as a skeptic. "I got a call from my girl at the NFL one day telling me the show wanted me and I should do it.

"When I hung up the phone, my daughter jumped up from behind the couch and said, 'Daddy, you have to do this.' So I said yes."

Sapp said that he still follows the show and that even if he is in an NFL Network studio working at his job as an analyst, he will sneak off and make sure one television is tuned to "Dancing" on Mondays and Tuesdays.

"My man Hines is going to win," Sapp said with authority about what will happen this week.

Kristi Yamaguchi is one of three Olympic gold medalists to earn the trophy on "Dancing" (speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno won Season 4, and gymnast Shawn Johnson triumphed in Season 8).

"I think athletes do well," Yamaguchi said, "because first of all they come in with their own fan base. Sports fans are very loyal, so they tend to vote. I think we athletes know how to perform and we're used to being coached. We're also fine with being told what to do and taking instruction and criticism."

Yamaguchi remembers most fondly her jive, for which she and partner Mark Ballas earned perfect scores of 30. She had three spins under Ballas' legs, "kind of crazy stuff," Yamaguchi said.

Helio Castroneves, the race car driver who won Season 5, said he went into the competition with a sense of freedom.

"What was the worst people were going to do, laugh about it?" Castroneves said. "And then I had the time of my life."

Castroneves was partnered with Julianne Hough, who was filled with excess personality and who gave the sense that she was the perfect foil to the demonstrative Castroneves.

Hough had won Season 4 with Ohno, and she and Castroneves shined in Season 5 with a sexy jive. Castroneves he said he and Hough had good chemistry that translated well to the dance floor.

"I think people could tell we liked dancing with each other," he said.

Another Olympic champion figure skater, Evan Lysacek, finished second in Season 10. "For lots of reasons I felt a lot of pressure. I think everybody kind of expected I would be good," he said. "But I was never a natural showman.

"I was good at keeping my back straight and the technical stuff, but the judges kept telling me to just feel the music and move my hips. And that's really hard. Try to move your hips just because someone tells you to."

Lysacek and Yamaguchi have suggestions about which athletes should be invited to compete on the show. And they prefer the same sport: hockey.

Yamaguchi would like to see Mark Messier. Lysacek said Chris Chelios would be a good get.

"Chris has a great personality," Lysacek said. He also said that when Lindsey Vonn, an Olympic and World Cup champion, is done with her skiing career, she would be an appropriate choice.

Former Laker Rick Fox, only the second NBA player to appear on the show, finished sixth in Season 11 and also has a suggestion for a future cast member.

"Charles Barkley," Fox said. "If America was not already in love with him, they would enjoy watching him compete in something that is so foreign. He'd know how to enjoy the experience and definitely be able to laugh at himself."

So, Charles, there it is. You can't play golf. But dancing? That might work.

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin

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