‘Dancing with the Stars: Athletes’: Breaking down the final three

Does Adam Rippon have the Mirrorball trophy all sewn up on “Dancing with the Stars: Athletes”? In all likelihood, yes, but you can’t count out Josh Norman and Tonya Harding, who could make the battle for No. 2 and maybe even No. 1 interesting. Football players have a great track record, and who thought Harding would even make the final a month ago?

The final three will face off Monday with two routines: one unlearned dance and their highly anticipated freestyles. But before they do, let’s size them up.

SEE ‘Dancing with the Stars: Athletes’ finale: Everything you need to know about the May 21 show – start time, dances, songs and how to vote

Tonya Harding
For her: natural dance ability, redemption narrative, performance factor. The redemption story can only take you so far; you still have to have the goods. But more impressive than Harding’s skills is her capability to really sell a routine. No matter how uneasy or uncomfortable she might be about a dance or Sasha Farber’s choreography, she absolutely owns her routines. Chalk it up to her figure skating experience, but it still takes tremendous confidence to do that with something you’re just learning. Like we’ve said, that bear quickstep could’ve gone very wrong if Harding didn’t embrace it fully. She dances big and outside of herself. Compare that to Jennie Finch Daigle, who, despite her towering 6-foot-2 height, tended to dance small and within herself.

SEE Could Tonya Harding make the ‘Dancing with the Stars: Athletes’ final two — and win! — based on these telling stats?

Needs to work on: Refinement. The pieces are all there for a perfect dance — Harding excels at ballroom — but she needs better finish on her lines.

Why she might win: The redemption arc. She’s also the underdog, albeit a controversial one. Look, Harding will always have a faction of haters and will never be fully “redeemed,” but she definitely changed some people’s opinions about her during her run here. Regardless whether you think she masterminded the attack on Nancy Kerrigan or not — remember: she was never charged for the attack and only pleaded guilty to hindering the prosecution — she’s been through a lot just to get here. Her irrepressible joy and shock at making the final three was one of the most genuine and heartwarming moments this season.

SEE Adam Rippon is the ‘Dancing with the Stars’ frontrunner with 2/5 odds

Josh Norman
For him: Showmanship, athleticism and momentum. After a Week 2 dip, some were worried the Washington Redskins cornerback was a pretender, but his beautiful contemporary routine in Week 3 proved he’s definitely a contender to become the fifth football player to win. He needs to build off that strong comeback.

Needs to work on: Technique and control. Norman will need to improve his posture for his finale foxtrot. He lucked out last week getting contemporary, which doesn’t have any rules, so there wasn’t any real technique for him to master. He also has a habit of being staccato in his movements, which a lot of football players are on the show, given the running “bursts” their sport entails.

Why he might win: As the non-skater of the final three, Norman is the apple in the bag of oranges. There are a lot of people who incorrectly think that skating and dancing are the same thing, and if they don’t like that, then Norman can benefit from that voting bloc. A large segment of fans also feels that two-time runner-up Sharna Burgess, who’s in her 11th straight season as a pro, is overdue for a win and a pro’s fan base is sometimes just as or even more important than the celebrity’s.

SEE ‘Dancing with the Stars: Athletes’ champ might have the fewest perfect scores since the first season

Adam Rippon
For him: Mad skills, mad personality, mad chemistry with Jenna Johnson. Rippon was the favorite to win from the beginning and everything he’s done since has only reinforced that he’s the one to beat (his average score is two and a half points higher than Norman’s). Not only does he have effortless ability and witty charm to win over viewers, but his synergy with Johnson is probably his greatest asset.

Needs to work on: Upper stiffness. Maybe it’s from figure skating, in which you have to stay upright and compact as you launch into a jump, but his upper body is not as loose and light as his legs and feet are. But this is, as my Friend Joey Tribbiani would say, a moo point. Rippon had contemporary last week and has jazz in the finale — two dances without strict rules and technique. Frankly, it would’ve been nice to see someone of his talent tackle a few more standard Latin and ballroom dances.

Why he might win: He is indisputably the best dancer left. This season has felt like a long yet brief coronation run for Rippon — not that there is anything wrong with that; it’s certainly happened before on the show (see: Jennifer Grey, Nicole Scherzinger, and fellow figure skaters Kristi Yamaguchi and Meryl Davis). And though their dream was to be in the final together, it’s better for Rippon that Mirai Nagasu is out: There won’t be any figure skating vote splitting and all of her fans can vote for her BFF.

Dancing with the Stars: Athletes” airs Mondays at 8/7c on ABC.

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