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UP FRONT

10/10/2008

I have a dream. A dream that one day I will be on ABC, draped in an outfit to make me rival Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, with an ultrafine cutie wrapped nicely in my arms, as we soak in rapt applause from a studio audience imploring some judge with a funny accent to validate what they saw: a perfect 10.

"Shut up, fool!" says Warren Sapp, one of three athletes in the cast of the latest Dancing With the Stars. "That's my dream! You want your own, then come out here and do it your damn self."

I'm actually thinking about it. Why not? So what if I'd have to put in six hours a day of grueling practice sessions? Who cares if I couldn't eat cheeseburgers and fries in fear of burping in the face of a gorgeous partner? I mean, what are the odds that I'll be worse than Evander Holyfield was in Season 1? Plus, athletes and those who cover them (sorry, Kenny Mayne, I know you tried) have been taking over DWTS, with this year's trio—Sapp, Misty May-Treanor and Maurice Greene—matching the athlete-participation record set in Season 4 and equaled last spring, when Kristi Yamaguchi won it all.

"Dancing is athletic," says Greene, who won gold as a sprinter at the 2000 Summer Olympics. "This stuff is not easy. In some respects, training-wise, having to learn totally new things, it's harder than sports."

The foxtrot? The cha-cha? The tango? As DWTS producers have discovered, athletes of all types are ideal contestants for the show because they're disciplined and competitive. That helps explain why Helio Castroneves, Apolo Anton Ohno, Emmitt Smith and Yamaguchi have all ended up with the cheesy mirrored disco ball. And yes, that thing would look great in my den.

Thing is, no one really fails by being a part of this show. (I can't believe I actually just wrote that.) Not even Kim Kardashian, who was eliminated in the third week this season. Her stepdad, former decathlete Bruce Jenner, says she's still a winner. "All of sports takes training, hard work, and you have to be willing and able to compete," says Jenner, who was in attendance to support Kardashian. "A lot of people who've done this never competed in anything in their life, my daughter being one of them. Above anything else, that's why these folks deserve so much credit, for having the courage just to do this."

Amen!

"Besides," Kardashian adds, "My boyfriend, Reggie [Bush, of course], wanted me to do this because he could never get me on the dance floor."

What's that all about?

Then there's Sapp, who swears, "I'm going to win this thing, baby! Don't even think about counting me out. Think Emmitt Smith or Jerry Rice, not Evander or Clyde Drexler. Those boys didn't have feet like mine."

If this sounds like trash-talking, welcome to the crossroads of sports and pop culture. A potpourri of former champions has felt right at home on this stage. Few of them could really dance before they started training, which sort of proves my point. Plus, they were willing to go on national TV, risking ridicule and humiliation in the form of not just defeat but the inevitable locker-room taunting as well.

"You know, being an athlete all of my life, I wanted to show people a different side," says May-Treanor, who's coming off another Olympic gold in beach volleyball. "It gets you out of the norm. It's nice to take risks, to expose yourself to failure. It's very humbling and definitely a new challenge. You see these dancers and think, 'Hey, that's easy ! I can do that.' Then you quickly find out that's not the case. With sports, you know what you can do, because you're doing it every day. It's just a question of whether or not you can do it better than someone else. With dancing, you quickly find yourself wondering whether or not you can do it at all."

So here are a few tips for former athletes, gleaned from my visit to the LA studio:

Don't go on Dancing With the Stars if …

  • You have no rhythm.

  • You hate being surrounded by beauty.

  • You love to eat. A lot.

  • You don't like being outshined by big-boned football players.

  • You'd rather be judged by Simon Cowell.

If none of those things kicks you to the curb, then by all means, go ahead and dream about it. Everyone else does these days.