It was a night of firsts when season 26 of “Dancing with the Stars” premiered Monday: the first time the cast was made up entirely of athletes, the first time two teams were eliminated at the end of the premiere show, the first time a collegiate athlete competed on the show, the first time a luger competed on the show, the first time a softball player competed on the show – and the list goes on.
And while it was the first time many of the athletes danced competitively – or took part in a judged sport for that matter – you would have never known.
Billed as the most competitive season in the show’s history, the 10-contestant season consists of six Olympians and one Youth Olympian. The remaining three athletes include an MLB player, NBA player and NFL player.
Figure skater Adam Rippon stole the show, just as he did two months ago in PyeongChang, where he was one of the first two openly gay men to represent Team USA at the Winter Olympics, earning a 24 (8, 8, 8) for his cha-cha-cha with professional dance partner Jenna Johnson. They tied for the highest score of the night with cornerback Josh Norman and partner Sharna Burgess.
Three of the six Olympians on the show are figure skaters, all of whom impressed on the first night of competition. Mirai Nagasu, who finished fourth individually at the 2010 Olympics and won team bronze with Rippon in PyeongChang – where she was the first U.S. woman to land a triple axel at the Games, scored a 23 (7, 8, 8) with Alan Bersten for their salsa. Two-time Olympian Tonya Harding had an emotional and graceful return to the public eye and tied Nagasu (8, 8, 7) for her foxtrot with Sasha Farber.
Two-time Olympic softball medalist Jennie Finch-Daigle and Olympic silver medalist luger Chris Mazdzer both earned 21 (7, 7, 7), tying for fifth based on scores alone. Finch-Daigle and Keo Motsepe performed a foxtrot that ended with Finch-Daigle’s three children on the stage and their mom holding back tears.
“I’m just so blessed, I’m so thankful,” she told host Erin Andrews. “I’m a winner no matter what.”
Mazdzer and partner Witney Carson were the first to dance Monday. Their salsa impressed the judges, with Len Goodman saying he had “style and confidence” and Bruno Tonioli claiming, “The king of luge gets into the groove, very nicely I might add.”
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Landing in the bottom half of the leaderboard was 2014 Youth Olympic basketball champion Arike Ogunbowale and three-time Olympic snowboarding medalist Jamie Anderson.
Ogunbowale, whose claim to fame came when she scored consecutive buzzer beaters to lead Notre Dame to the NCAA title last month, earned a 20 (7, 6, 7) for her salsa with Gleb Savchenko, while Anderson, whose medals include back-to-back slopestyle golds and a big air silver, scored 19 (6, 7, 6) with Artem Chigvintsev for their Viennese Waltz.
While Ogunbowale headed for a red-eye flight after the show in order to make an early morning presentation at one of her college courses, Anderson would head home.
She and outfielder Johnny Damon were eliminated at the end of the show based on judges’ scores and viewer votes. With an abbreviated four-week season, two couples will be eliminated each week.
Damon and partner Emma Slater scored an 18 (6, 6, 6) for their foxtrot, while Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lindsay Arnold had the lowest score of the night, totaling a 17 (6, 5, 6) for their cha-cha-cha.