Commentary

Athletes on "Dancing with the Stars"

Originally Published: September 21, 2009
By Mark Francescutti and Jen Lukac | Special to Page 2

"Dancing with the Stars" Season 9 debuts at 8 p.m. ET Monday on ABC, and athletes are always a big part of the show. Sports stars have won five of the previous eight seasons -- and four more are set to take the floor. There's good potential with the new crop: Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin, 26; former UFC champion Chuck Liddell, 39; ex-NFL receiver Michael Irvin, 43; and snowboarder Louie Vito, 21.

Let's take a look back at some of the athletes who have excelled, or flopped, on the previous eight seasons:

"DWTS" Athlete Bios
Here are bios of the four athletes competing on this season of "Dancing with the Stars":

Natalie Coughlin, 26, Olympic swimmer: The most decorated female athlete of both the 2008 Beijing and 2004 Athens Games. Coughlin has won 11 Olympic medals. In 2008, she became the first American female athlete to win six medals in one Olympiad in addition to becoming the first woman to win consecutive individual Olympic gold medals in the 100m backstroke. Born and raised in Northern California, Coughlin attended the University of California, Berkeley.

Chuck Liddell, 39, former UFC champion: Liddell is the face of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He rose through the ranks to become the light-heavyweight champion of the world. In July 2009, Liddell was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame. He is tied for the most wins by a UFC fighter with 16 and ranks first in most knockout wins with 10. He also penned his 2008 autobiography, "Iceman: My Fighting Life," which quickly became a New York Times best-seller. Chuck wrestled at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Michael Irvin, 43, ex-NFL receiver: Former Dallas Cowboy is a three-time Super Bowl champion and former broadcaster for ESPN's "NFL Countdown." In 2007, he was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame and has appeared in various television shows, as well as co-starring in "The Longest Yard" with Adam Sandler and Chris Rock. Last fall, Irvin executive produced/hosted the reality TV series "4th and Long" for Spike TV in which one football hopeful was given a shot at making the Dallas Cowboys' roster.

Louie Vito, 21, snowboarder: Among the U.S.'s elite snowboarders favored to make the 2010 Olympic team. Competing in both the Pipe and Slopestyle disciplines, he will continue to train for the Grand Prix qualifying. The 21-year-old native of Bellefontaine, Ohio, turned pro in 2006 and has competed in multiple Winter X Games competitions. He is also a two-time winner of the USSA Grand Prix Halfpipe Series.

BEST ATHLETES

Apolo Anton Ohno (Season 4 champion): The little engine that could. He teamed with partner Julianne Hough to form the best pairing in the show's history, chemistrywise. It also helped that they were about the same height and moved in almost perfect unison. As judge Bruno Tonioli said, "He looks like he's been dancing all his life."

Helio Castroneves (Season 5 champion): He wasn't the best dancer of his season (that was Cheetah Girl Sabrina Bryan, who suffered a shocking elimination midseason). But Castroneves showed a lighthearted enthusiasm and personality that won over fans. His quickstep in a banana-colored suit is one of the most entertaining dances in the show's history, and proved that even the most technical ballroom dances can be exciting.

Kristi Yamaguchi (Season 6 champion): The most technically gifted dancer among the athletes by far (the judges could barely critique her technique in the final weeks of the show). During the last week of competition, Yamaguchi scored a perfect 90 for her three dances -- cha-cha, freestyle and jive -- making her the only dancer to do that in the show's history.

Yamaguchi also beat out fellow athlete Jason Taylor to end a streak of four consecutive male champions. But her performances often lacked the personality and the fun of some of the other athletes. Perhaps because figure skating was too close to dancing.

SHOCKING DANCE

Emmitt Smith (Season 3 champion): No one expected the stocky, all-time leading rusher to be a great dancer. But in Week 1, he was like a "teddy bear dancing" with Cheryl Burke on a cha-cha (and earned a nice score of 24 out of 30 to boot). Smith beat out the more technically skilled Mario Lopez in the finals thanks to a generous fan vote -- but, like with Warren Sapp in Season 7, it was just fun to watch a big guy dance. Smith is also the only one of five NFL players to win the show.

Honorable mention: Laila Ali's samba, which earned perfect 10s and showed that a woman could be a beast in the ring and a beauty on the floor. Ali was far better than any of her male boxing counterparts, and had the highest average score of any athlete who didn't win. She finished third to Ohno and Joey Fatone.

WORST ATHLETES

Evander Holyfield (Season 1): He couldn't quit boxing, but he quit dancing pretty quickly. He kicked off a bad string of partners for beautiful professional dancer Edyta Sliwinska. Said Tonioli of Evander's quickstep: "It was like watching Terminator keeping up with Tinkerbell." He was voted to have the three worst dances in Season 1: cha-cha, quickstep and jive.

Honorable mentions: Monica Seles (voted off after the first week, looked out of her comfort zone); Floyd Mayweather (with such great footwork in the ring, he was a big disappointment); Clyde Drexler (he wasn't even close to "gliding" across the floor).

MOST IMPROVED AWARD

Ty Murray (Season 8): The rodeo star began the competition stiff and uncomfortable, almost unwatchable. But no dancer broke out of his shell more, and he became a fan favorite (taking fourth place thanks to a charitable fan base). "If the others have climbed hills, you've climbed mountains," head judge Len Goodman said after Murray was eliminated. "With that dedication and work ethic, you've been a credit to everyone on the show."

SHOCKING WINNER AWARD

Shawn Johnson (Season 8): Shawn was a big underdog. Few thought she had a chance to beat heartthrob Gilles Marini, who had much better scores throughout the season. But Johnson kept improving, and she tied Marini on the final night in scores. She won over enough fans to take the crown.

BEST ESPN PLUG (1)

ESPN anchorman and personality Kenny Mayne (Season 2) was one of the worst contestants in the show's history. After struggling with the cha-cha (earning a score of 13 out of 30), Mayne was the first contestant to be eliminated. But he had little chance to succeed, because the fan vote counts for half the results. His fan base consisted of the "SportsCenter" demographic, which probably isn't the major demo of "DWTS." But Mayne more than made up for his brief stint by reappearing in recent seasons on "DanceCenter," an in-show skit that looks at the dancers with "SportsCenter"-esque analysis and statistics.

BEST ESPN PLUG (2)

Are you ready for some … dancing? NFL defensive end Jason Taylor danced to the "Monday Night Football" theme "Heavy Action" and donned Dolphins colors during a paso doble Latin routine. The Dolphins colors didn't give him great scores, but he looked cool doing it.