Season 22 of Dancing with the Stars began with four current or former professional athletes in the competition, which is why we thought the show was worth covering here at The Comeback.

Athletes such as football players Emmitt Smith and Donald Driver, Olympic gold medalists Shawn Johnson and Kristi Yamaguchi, and race car driver Helio Castroneves have won the contest in past seasons, so it was certainly possible that NFL stars Antonio Brown and Von Miller, Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie or UFC fighter Paige VanZant could finish on top.

But after nine weeks of dancing, only VanZant was left among the four athletes in the competition. Could she beat out fellow finalists Ginger Zee (Good Morning America meteorologist) and Nyle DiMarco (former America’s Next Top Model winner) for the mirrorball trophy? Here are the three dances she performed.

Paige VanZant: Salsa

Each pair got to perform a “Redemption Dance,” in which they picked a routine from earlier in the season that drew lower scores. For VanZant and partner Mark Ballas, that was the Salsa. In Week 2, Ballas injured his back during rehearsals, forcing VanZant to dance with replacement Alan Bersten. Though the pair danced well, their score for the routine was 24, which left some room for improvement.

VanZant’s second attempt at the Salsa was far more ambitious, which shouldn’t have been a surprise since she has eight weeks of additional experience and confidence on the dance floor. The routine began with VanZant leading four other dancers, and she fit in among the pros seamlessly with quick footwork and hip action. With Ballas, the pace of the dance was fast as the two attacked the routine with spins, lifts and dazzling steps. Nothing appeared to be held back.

Results: Judge Len Goodman felt the routine lacked enough of the Salsa’s signature hip action, and gave a 9 on his scorecard Carrie Ann Inaba and Bruno Tonioli had no such nitpicks, impressed by VanZant’s improvement, the energy of the routine, and bold choreography, with both scoring 10s for VanZant for a total mark of 29. Would that leave an opening for the other two finalists to jump ahead?

 

Paige VanZant: Freestyle

The highlight for each season of DWTS is often the freestyle dance each pair performs in the finale, which allows the dancers to essentially do whatever they want and emphasize their best skills in a routine that doesn’t have to follow formal ballroom rules or steps. Ballas used VanZant’s personal story of escaping bullying in the small Oregon town she grew up in to inspire the dance, portraying someone who has found her identity and confidence.

With an elegant routine, VanZant showed she could be delicate and beautiful on the dance floor, something that probably wasn’t originally expected from a UFC fighter who typically likes to get rough. But VanZant danced throughout much of her childhood, and that background has been reflected in her performance throughout the season. Where she might have relied on athleticism earlier on, VanZant acknowledged her “girly” side as the competition progressed and that may have been the difference in her advancing to the finals.

Results: All three judges praised VanZant for the growth she displayed as a dancer throughout the season. She already had the skills, but still managed to improve each week, becoming more polished and ambitious with each performance. That allowed Ballas to become more creative and daring with his choreography, and VanZant met the challenge. She drew a 10 from each judge for a perfect score of 30, and the combined 59 put her in the lead going into the final night of the competition.

 

Paige VanZant: Jive/Salsa Fusion

The finalists each got one last chance to impress the judges and either improve or maintain their scores with a fusion dance. (By this point, it really came down to the fan vote. But hey, there was a two-hour show to fill, so everyone got one more dance to show what they could do best.)

VanZant and Ballas combined the Jive and Salsa for their last routine. Though she showed an ability to handle every sort of dance, notably the formal ballroom routines later in the season, VanZant seemed to do best with the Latin-style dances that allowed for more freeform performances. Springy footwork, quick hip action and athletic jumps and lifts catered to VanZant’s athleticism, resulting in some extremely energetic routines. This fusion was no exception.

Results: VanZant looked like someone capable of winning the competition from the very beginning. Not every dancer follows through on that potential, sometimes peaking too soon or hitting a plateau. But VanZant got better every week. Each judge gave her a 10 for a final score of 30. VanZant did all she could, leaving the final decision up to the fan vote.

 

The Winner

Dancing with the Stars is a ballroom dancing competition and presumably an athletic contest (though it’s subject to judges’ scores and fan voting), but the final results are ultimately based on popularity as well. The best dancers almost always advance deep into the competition and to the finals. But the fan vote — whether or not people like the dancers or respond to their personal stories — can be what makes the difference.

I thought VanZant would place third among the finalists, expecting the audience to support the meteorologist they see each morning or the ridiculously handsome model who’s impressively overcome a disability. As bright and charming as VanZant could be, along with an inspiring personal story in overcoming bullying. her background as a MMA fighter and lack of mainstream familiarity might hurt her in the voting.

Fortunately, the audience did recognize that VanZant was one of the two best dancers in season 22. (Zee ended up placing third.) In addition to her outstanding performances on the dance floor, her high scores from the judges couldn’t be ignored.

DiMarco may have been just a bit better, however, in terms of artistic expression. But the accomplishment of dancing at such a high level of excellence despite being deaf and not able to hear the music always made his performances seem that much more impressive. That’s not to say DiMarco received any sort of break from the judges and fans. But dealing with his disability and excelling in spite of it may have given him that final push. (It also probably shouldn’t be overlooked that the DWTS audience is largely female.)

The show doesn’t reveal the final vote totals, so we don’t know how close it was between VanZant and DiMarco. But the ultimate result isn’t really one to argue with. Did VanZant deserve to win? Yes, but so did DiMarco and his backstory may have made just enough of a difference.

You can read all of our Dancing With the Stars recaps here.

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is a writer, editor, and podcaster. You can find his work at Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He's written for Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation.