Former runner-up and retired MLB superstar David Ross returned to the ballroom to act as guest judge this week on "Dancing with the Stars," while the semifinals welcomed back former contestants Meryl Davis, Von Miller and Nastia Liukin to mentor the Top 6.
For the first round of the night, the contestants celebrated the MVPs in their lives who have inspired them and motivated them to become the world-class athletes they are. For frontrunner Tonya Harding, that was her father, who died nine years ago. Contrary to what we saw in Oscar-nominated biopic "I, Tonya," the former figure skater's dad did not abandon her.
"When I lost my dad, I lost my very best friend," Harding said in an emotional video that aired before her equally emotional performance. "I was definitely was daddy's little girl. When I was young, my dad had to leave. He never abandoned me, we talked every single day. My dad would come to my competitions. He was always there for me."
The second round featured a "Ballroom Battle" for a pair of bonus points from the judges, and with the competition as tough as it is in this semifinals. Harding squared off against Jennie Finch Daigle, while it was the Olympic besties going head to head when Adam Rippon battled Mirai Nagasu. And that left Chris Mazdzer and Josh Norman to wrap up the dancing for the night.
The Olympic medalist dedicated her quickstep to her mother, who was proudly weeping in attendance. It was a gold-medal look for sure, and Mirai proved she had no fear when it came to tackling the ballroom's toughest style. She and Alan simply flew across that dance floor, with their feet barely flicking the ground. Mirai was a vision of loveliness, matching Alan's posture and carriage through most of that dance -- you could see her shoulders sagging a bit as she got tired -- and creating some really lovely extensions. I loved the attitude of her opening solo sequence as she really slipped into the character of the dance.
Judges Scores: 9, 9, 8, 9
My Score: 9
Jennie Finch Daigle & Keo Motsepe
In tribute to her husband, Jennie was fully on board with this week's song choice for her Viennese Waltz, which was not the case last week. While she was stilted through much of the dance, not quite trusting Keo completely, this was the most graceful Jennie has been thus far in the competition. If she would just give herself fully to the process, she could make a very lovely dancer as she had wonderful lines at moments throughout this piece. Jennie really needs more time to get out of her own way to really get there, but there just isn't enough time this season.
Witney made a very bold decision letting Chris open this foxtrot completely by himself, and it kind of didn't work. He lacked the stage presence and command to really sell that he was this dynamic leader. That continued throughout the performance, as rather than be the male lead, it looked like Witney was leading from the woman's part. I mean, of course she was, but it's not supposed to look that way during some of the partnering sequences. Chris was much stronger last week, as he isn't yet comfortable with these uptempo routines.
Judges Scores: 8, 9, 7, 9
My Score: 7
Tonya Harding & Sasha Farber
Once again, Tonya managed to really wring the emotions out of me on a beautiful rumba dedicated to her late father. Sasha absolutely knows how to connect with her story and her own drive to prove both to herself and to America that she has always and still contains something special inside of her. She never got the chance to perhaps reach her full potential in the world of figure skating after that ban, but she is absolutely killing it here. Those lines were exquisite; Tonya is so aware of her body and her extensions, and the delicacy of just her hand position creates a fluid movement back through to her feet.
Judges Scores: 8, 9, 8, 8
My Score: 8
Adam Rippon & Jenna Johnson
It was a beautifully choreographed piece that saw Adam and Jenna free themselves from the confines and expectations of a world that was only holding them back. I would have liked to see some bigger movements out of Adam to match Jenna's extensions, but the attitude of his hands and feet was exactly on point for the tone of the dance. Adam proved a strong male partner for Jenna, who could have used him more for some dynamic lifts and imagery. This tribute to his mother, though, was nevertheless powerfully executed from a technical standpoint and the chemistry between the two remained palpable.
Judges Scores: 10, 10, 9, 10
My Score: 9
Josh Norman & Sharna Burgess
Josh grew up in a household of four brothers, his wolf pack, and he dedicated this contemporary piece to the bond he shares with them. He still needs to work on the little moments between the big choreographed moves because his arms and hands sometimes just hang there, and he literally jogged at one point to hit a mark. But in the moments he is on, Josh is so fluid and graceful it is beautiful to behold. I'm sure his brothers will give him so much grief for dedicating such a schmaltzy performance to them, but they should be pleased. It was a lovely piece with some very nice lifts and partner work from Josh. There was a looseness in his movement that we see over and over again from football players as these seasons progress. If Josh had a full season to grow, he could well contend for that trophy.
It was the cha cha as these two couples faced off side by side. Keo and Sasha took very different approaches to these dances, with Keo offering more contemporary choreography, while Sasha embraced the tradition of the form. Jennie and Keo hit hard from the first note, while Tonya and Sasha built up to those more energetic moments, incorporating some lifts along the way. Tonya continues to struggle a bit with her hip motion, while Jennie's overall stiffness is starting to loosen. I expected a little more heart from Tonya, and have to agree with America that Jennie gets the very slightest edge.
It was the battle of the besties and both contestants struggle with their need to be perfect. Mirai and Alan certainly came out stronger, with some high-flying leaps and splits by Alan to get our attention, but it was Adam and Jenna who wrapped their peppy jive with those big eye-drawing moves. I thought Mirai had a little more groove throughout, and she seemed to be more fully involved with Alan and her own routine. I caught Adam a few times looking just a bit distracted as his competitive spirit got the best of him.
Judges Scores: Judges tied, so America's pick: Adam & Jenna
My Score: Mirai & Alan
Chris & Witney v. Josh & Sharna
Josh really dug into the floor on this salsa and gave some great hip action. Chris was just too tall in his legs and really didn't bring the spice that a good salsa demands. I saw Chris working, while Josh looked more like he was in the spirit of the dance. Chris nailed more complex lifts throughout, but Josh brought it with his own, including a terrifying face drop to close out the dance. It was a tough one from both men, who simply had to take off their shirts.
Judges Scores: Josh & Sharna (3), Chris & Witney (1)
In a brutal elimination, it was time to say farewell to half of the remaining contestants. Honestly, in such a short run, it's not entirely fair to some of these competitors as there is a stiff learning curve to ballroom dance, and three weeks just isn't enough to definitively declare that any of them aren't going to be capable of greatness. This goes specifically for Jennie and Chris, who had the farthest journey from their athletic background to the dance floor.
First through to the finale were Adam & Jenna, followed by Tonya & Sasha and Josh & Sharna. And so, figure skaters and football players continue to dominate on "Dancing With the Stars," even when the season is so shortened. This meant both Jennie and Chris came up just short.
The only other semifinalist I could have argued for would be Mirai, but there is only room for three, and of the three figure skaters, she is the least known outside of her sport, so if skating fans were splitting their vote, I can understand her coming up short.
It is worth noting that in the Ballroom Battle Round, the winning couple in each battle earned an extra two points from the judges ... and then all three of those winners wound up making the finals, so maybe it all came down to those battles.
It all comes to a head next week on the season finale of "Dancing With the Stars," Monday at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.