LOS ANGELES -- Team USA stole the show – both atop the leaderboard and in the ballroom – as “Dancing with the Stars: Athletes” hit its halfway mark Monday night.
In a number unheard of in the reality competition show’s 26-season history, 13 U.S. Olympians filled the studio – five to compete and eight to cheer on their teammates.
The support from figure skaters Jason Brown, Nathan Chen and Meryl Davis, lugers Tony Benshoof, Erin Hamlin, Ashley Walden and Bengt Walden, and bobsledder Lauren Gibbs seemed to pay off as all five contestant Olympians advanced to the penultimate week of competition.
Almost three months after they won Olympic bronze together at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, figure skaters Mirai Nagasu and Adam Rippon proved they are still the ultimate teammates, friends and competitors as both earned cumulative scores of 74 to tie for the highest judges’ score of the night. They each earned 37 in their own dance, which was added to the 37 they received from the team dance they were part of with Arike Ogunbowale and Jennie Finch-Daigle.
Both athletes earned one perfect score of 10 – the only couples to do so to date in the season.
“It was hard, to be quite honest,” Rippon’s professional dance partner Jenna Johnson told TeamUSA.org about their week and pulling out a stellar quickstep. “We were fighting exhaustion and zero sleep and no time all at once.”
“It felt like a huge relief and the most exciting thing ever all at once,” Rippon added about the score.
The skaters are currently traveling the nation as part of the 22-stop Stars on Ice tour, along with Brown, Chen, Davis and a slew of other Olympic figure skaters. Their schedule includes rehearing for and performing in as many as four shows a weekend, in addition to learning to dance and memorizing choreography for “Dancing with the Stars.”
But the hectic schedule didn’t stop Nagasu from finding time to live out her fantasy of becoming a princess for her foxtrot this week, which included having her own Cinderella’s carriage as a prop and seeing the entire audience wear light-up Mickey ears during her performance.
“I really tried to channel my inner Meryl today because, you know, she’s the true queen of Disney and life – and I’m just a sarcastic valley girl,” Nagasu said, referring to season 18 champion and Olympic ice dance gold medalist Meryl Davis.
The character – and Nagasu’s elegance – paid off in the form of the season’s first 10, from guest judge and season 24 champion Rashad Jennings.
“It surprised me!” her partner, Alan Bersten, said of their score. “I was so excited to get a 10, especially a Mickey 10! Mirai came out of her shell this week and really impressed me.”
2014 Youth Olympic basketball gold medalist – and famed Notre Dame buzzer beater – Ogunbowale had the third highest score of the night after her foxtrot (70 total), but when that was added to fan votes it wasn’t enough to keep her on the show.
“She’s amazing. She’s an athlete, she’s so focused, she’s hardworking, she’s very real – the most real person I’ve worked with on the show,” said partner and pro dancer Gleb Savchenko. “She took this experience and tried her best and made me really, really proud as a teacher.”
While she had hoped to stay on the show longer, being eliminated – along with basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – might not be the worst thing for the college junior, whose schedule has included taking red-eye flights from Los Angeles back to school to take finals or make presentations the morning after each show.
Two-time Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding and Olympic luge silver medalist Chris Mazdzer received the same individual score as Ogunbowale – 33 – but their team dance score of 33 (earned with Abdul-Jabbar and NFL cornerback Josh Norman) put them a step back, tying them for fourth in the second-week standings.
Harding had a personal victory in being able to dance her quickstep to Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman,” which could be considered the hunting, fishing, truck-driving, firewood-cutting former skater’s personal anthem.
“It felt really great, it was bringing Sasha into my world,” Harding said of performing to that song with partner Sasha Farber.
Mazdzer, on the other hand, had his victory in the form of a score. He and partner Witney Carson were the first to earn a 9, which Carrie Ann Inaba awarded while Bruno Tonioli called him a “waltzing heartthrob,” after scoring all 7s last week.
“That was our best pass-through in the competition. Regardless of the dance, to execute what you’re trying to do feels amazing,” Mazdzer said.
“We worked so hard on it this week that it just felt really good to do it the best you possibly can and to be rewarded for that,” Carson, the season 19 champion, said. “We got the first 9 of the season, which is so cool.”
Two-time Olympic softball medalist Finch-Daigle tied with Norman for the fourth spot on the leaderboard, which in this case was also the second-to-last spot ahead of Abdul-Jabbar.
Finch-Daigle’s cha-cha-cha, which was overhauled halfway through the week after she decided not to perform to a piece of music that felt too risqué, left the judges looking for more out of her and noting that her timing was off.
“I was a little disappointed in the way I performed, but I get to do it another week and I look forward to grinding it out this week, working hard,” Finch-Daigle said. “We have so much room for improvement, and that’s the exciting part, and I look forward to redemption next week.”
The pitcher was nothing but a ray of sunshine after the show, exclaiming, “We’re in it to win it!” and explaining she refers to show days as “Magical Mondays.”
She’ll be back next week, competing against Harding, Mazdzer, Nagasu, Norman and Rippon. Three couples will be eliminated at the end of Monday’s show, with the remaining three heading into the May 21 season finale.
With the vast majority of remaining contestants being Olympians, the question now is: Which one will join the ranks of Apolo Ohno, Kristi Yamaguchi, Shawn Johnson, Meryl Davis and Laurie Hernandez as DWTS mirror ball trophy winners?