LOS ANGELES — It's become a proud athletic tradition: Winning "Dancing With the Stars."
When Hines Ward took home the mirrorball trophy on the hit show Tuesday, he joined its winningest group of alumni: Athletes. Professional athletes have taken the "Dancing" title six times in the past 12 seasons.
Since the show premiered stateside in 2005, three Olympians, two football stars and one race-car driver have been named "Dancing" champs. Three other NFL stars and an Olympic skater finished the popular show in second place.
Ward, a Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver and former Super Bowl most valuable player, credits his professional dance partner, Kym Johnson, with their dance victory. He plans to keep his new mirrorball right next to his Super Bowl trophy.
"It's special," the 35-year-old said, glittery trophy in hand. "With football, it takes all 53 guys. With this mirrorball, it was just Kym and I together in the studio putting in the hours. I'm just glad I didn't let her down."
Ward consistently posted high scores throughout the 10-week competition, and judges praised his showmanship and dedication.
"We've had some great footballers on `Dancing With the Stars,' but I don't think any compare with Hines Ward," head judge Len Goodman said during the season finale.
Ward was up against Kirstie Alley and Chelsea Kane for the season 12 title. The actresses finished second and third respectively.
His commitment was especially evident after Johnson suffered a serious neck injury during rehearsals two weeks ago. The couple triumphantly returned to the dance floor, earning perfect scores for their performance and drawing tears from Ward, Johnson and judge Carrie Ann Inaba.
"I'm so impressed with you, the way you partnered with her through that routine," Inaba said. "The connection was beyond what we ask for in a dance routine."
Through misty eyes, Ward said, "I was just elated that she was out there dancing three days after that horrific injury that she just had."
The couple earned five perfect scores for their final six dances.
Besides Ward, the other athletic "Dancing" champs are NFL star Emmitt Smith, speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno, IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves, figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi and gymnast Shawn Johnson. Football stars Jason Taylor, Warren Sapp and Jerry Rice were runners-up on the show, as was Olympic skater Evan Lysacek.
Professional athletes actively use their bodies for their work, so they have the mental discipline and physical fitness to train and adapt to the challenges of competitive dancing. They're also more likely than other candidates to avoid over-training, said casting director Deena Katz.
The professional dancers on "Dancing With the Stars" are "world-class athletes," said "Sport Science" host John Brenkus, so it follows that their fellow professional athletes might be able to keep up.
But not all can. Legendary boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and pro wrestler Chris Jericho were dismissed from the show last month.
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Sandy Cohen can be reached at http://twitter.com/APSandy