Dancing With The Stars kicked off its 26th season last night with a special all-athlete cast of contestants. Though I’m not a regular viewer of the show, I had to tune in to see how Olympians like figure skaters Adam Rippon and Mirai Nigasu; NCAA Women’s Basketball champ and buzzer beater Arike Ogunbowale; Olympic gold medal winning softball pitcher Jennie Finch Daigle; and the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would fare on the dance floor.
We all know how competitive athletes are, and in fact professional and Olympic champions like Emmet Smith, Apolo Anton Ohno, and Laurie Hernandez are just a few of the athletes to have won the coveted Mirror Ball Trophy bestowed upon each season’s champion. Sheer athleticism and competitive drive, however, does not necessarily translate into the footwork, rhythm, elegance, and star quality required to win this competition. While some surprised, like the I, Tonya redeemed Tonya Harding and Olympic luger Chris Mazdzer, others disappointed like two-time world series champ Johnny Damon and two-time gold medal snowboarder Jamie Andersen, who due to an abbreviated 4-week season were sent packing after the first dance.
Here’s our review of the athletes’ debut dance and the ones to watch over next three weeks:
Chris Mazdzer made history when he became the first-ever American athlete to win a medal (silver) in the Men’s Single Luge this past February in PyeongChang. Though one might expect this luger to be a big lug on the dance floor, the boy can move and has that extra something – not to mention one of the best points, feet that is, as partner Witney Carson noticed, trained by years speeding toes first down an icy track. His chest ain’t bad either, as it was obligatorily displayed in his salsa attire.
Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, a six-time NBA champion, and the league’s only 6-time MVP. He was also the sentimental crowd and judges favorite last night – the only reason I can see for them not ripping into his Cha Cha. Though he is 71 years old, and at 7’2″ towers above his 5’4″ partner, but the choreography didn’t help with gaggle of dancers all running around under his outstretched arms while he jiggled around in kind of a skeleton dance. His performance can only go up from here, but we’ll see how long before the viewers take him down.
Though I am still not a fan, despite Margot Robbie’s portrayal, I have to admit I was impressed and somewhat moved by Tonya Harding’s performance, with movie mom and Oscar winner Alison Janney watching on in the audience. No doubt Tonya had a rough upbringing and hard times since the Nancy Kerrigan knee-bashing episode, banned from figure skating and the sport in which she excelled as a champion. While admitting she was never particularly graceful on the ice, her Foxtrot with dance partner Sasha Farber displayed otherwise, with an elegance the judges rewarded. Unfortunately the viewers at home did not. They voted her into the bottom three despite her performance, which felt quite cruel after her tearful intro, and weirdly I found myself rooting for her. Maybe her redemption is possible after all.
MIRAI NIGASU AND ADAM RIPPON
I’m going to group them together because they are both figure skaters, both just competed at the Olympics, both bronze medalists in the team competition, and both crowd favorites. Just pick whether you want the boy or girl to win because both also admitted they want a show down in the final. Their performances, not surprisingly, displayed that will likely happen and that they are the ones to beat. DWTS is tailor made for everything they know how to do so well – show off choreographed dance moves live, in sparkly costumes, with millions watching. It’s like a figure skating competition without the ice.
Like many a football player before him on DWTS, Washington Redskins Josh Norman proved he has the moves and charisma to go the distance. The highest-paid NFL cornerback, his touchdown leap over partner Lindsay Arnold opened the closing dance of the night, showing judges and the audience alike that Mirai and Adam might have some real competition for that Mirror Ball Trophy.