The 13 all-stars of Season 15 have been whittled down to the final three.
Shawn Johnson, Melissa Rycroft and Kelly Monaco compete Monday (ABC, 8 ET/PT) in the first all-female Dancing With the Stars finals. They'll each perform two dances — a favorite number from the season and the always crowd-pleasing freestyle. On Tuesday's two-hour finale (ABC, 9 ET/PT, they'll have to perform one final instant dance.
So who's likely to walk away with the coveted mirror ball trophy?
If you believe in sheer skill and talent, Shawn Johnson. If you believe in improvement, ability and heartfelt dedication, Melissa Rycroft. And if you believe in love, Kelly Monaco.
Let's assess the three (with their cumulative points so far this season):
Kelly Monaco (420.5)
The soap star was Dancing's first champ, taking home the 2005 trophy. But she did it amid controversy and outcry that John O'Hurley, who came in second, should have won. "I was almost embarrassed the first time around for winning because I wasn't the best dancer. And I was called out on my win, so it made me feel really insecure as to why I won," Kelly, 36, said on last Monday's performance show. Working with pro partner Val Chmerkovskiy has boosted her confidence and improved her technical skills. And the judges have recognized that. In Week 3, judge Carrie Ann Inaba said, "Val and Kelly, you are the couple to watch."
But it's their romance that has captured the voting audience. In Week 4, Val said, "I really don't care about the scores or results or elimination, I'm just really blessed I met this person to be part of her journey." In Week 7, when their dance included Val proposing to Kelly as part of the number, host Brooke Burke Charvet said, "At the rate you two are going, what can we expect in the finale?" Replied Val: "Children!" While their relationship is no doubt a prize that's come from the show, it's ultimately a dance competition and romance may not be enough to land Kelly a second mirror ball trophy.
Shawn Johnson (444.5)
The gold-medal Olympic gymnast, 20, knows how to train, how to endure pain, how to compete and how to win. She took home the Dancing mirror ball trophy in spring 2009, one of many athletes who have walked away as champs (also including Emmitt Smith, Apolo Anton Ohno, Helio Castroneves, Kristi Yamaguchi and Hines Ward). "I've tried to hide it all season, that it doesn't mean that much," Shawn said last week on Monday's show. "But it does. I really want it."
The powerhouse performer is partnered with pro Derek Hough, a three-time champ. Winning is what these two do. The judges have consistently praised Shawn's technique, using words such as "shining," "heavenly perfection," flawless," and "one of the best dances, if not THE best dance ... in 15 seasons." But the show isn't just about who can pull off a perfect paso. "Dance is sometimes more than just movement," said Carrie Ann last week, adding that it's about conveying the emotion of the moment, too. Was she laying the groundwork for a loss, even though Shawn has proved she's a true dancing star?
Melissa Rycroft (446.5)
The reality-TV celeb (she was a contestant on The Bachelor and co-hosted a season of Bachelor Pad) doesn't have the steely determination of Shawn Johnson. She's married with a baby daughter, so she doesn't have the lovey-dovey back story of Kelly Monaco. But Melissa has endeared herself to fans slowly and steadily throughout the season, building each week in perfect finale timing. Judge Bruno Tonioli said of Melissa last week, "She has exceeded all expectations."
Melissa, 29, did not win a trophy the first time around, coming in third behind Shawn in 2009. "I'm the only one left in the competition that knows how to lose in this competition. I know what that feels like," she said on Monday's show last week, driving home that she's the underdog in the competition. Her partner, Tony Dovolani, has never won a mirror ball trophy either, and he's been on the show since Season 2. Die-hard Dancing fans are rooting for him. Melissa and Tony have scored the most cumulative points, and the show and its fans like to reward effort. Melissa just might be in the perfect position to take home the mirror ball.