Voters have typically rushed to support former and current Olympic athletes who compete on Dancing With the Stars. Apolo Anton Ohno, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Shawn Johnson won their seasons, and even the modestly talented Maurice Greene was able to finish fifth. So Tuesday's departure of Natalie Coughlin in the tenth place spot in Season Nine has to be counted as a major surprise.
The lithe swimmer had finished only one point off the lead as recently as two weeks ago, and even last week she still seemed to be safely in the top half of the draw, and a good bet to at least reach the top six. But there were a few concerns raised about her seeming tense when she danced, as Coughlin was slow to break her old swimming habit of holding her breath during competition. It was clear also that the dramatics of dancing, and looking romantic in the arms of Alec Mazo, did not come easily to the quiet Coughlin. And previous female Olympians who succeeded on DWtS came from the "girly" spots of figure skating and gymnastics, which have a big overlap with the show's usual audience.
Coughlin had her first major struggle on Monday, dancing a paso doble that was docked for seeming to lack conviction and artistic content. Her score of 22 was the lowest of all the women, and she went first in a two-hour show, which is always dangerous. Still, the judges were downcast to see Coughlin and Aaron Carter in the bottom two: "Justice should prevail, and neither should be there," huffed Len Goodman. There comes a time in every DWtS season where viewers are admonished to please reward talent instead of the likable underdogs (the names Michael Irvin and Louis Vito were not mentioned, nor did they need to be), and we are now at that stage. Upon her elimination, Coughlin remained composed, as always. "I guess I didn't show how much I loved it, but I really did," she said, and that reserve may have sealed her fate.
The night's hyped highlight was a tribute to Michael Jackson, which was promoted with footage of past DWtS routines done to the King of Pop's music and the pro dancers discussing his influence. Then, after a highly stilted introduction from Latoya Jackson, the DWtS pros took the stage, with Mark Ballas moonwalking and the entire gang performing the familiar choreography from the "Thriller" video, with Derek Hough in the Jacko role. It wasn't bad, but no matter how skilled, a bunch of ballroom dancers, many of them European, aren't going to make anyone forget Michael Jackson. Also, Norah Jones performed one of her new songs and the oldie "Come Away With Me." Her music sounds completely different when you're not in a Starbucks.
Next week, it's a dance marathon on Monday night, followed by the return of the dance-off and a double elimination on Tuesday. And some advice for the judges: if you want us to vote out the weaker dancers, stop giving them scores that are nearly identical to those for the ones you really want us to keep. Don't tell us Vito and Coughlin were equally good one night and then get all outraged the following night when Coughlin is the one going home.