Dude, no way! Vito joins 'Dancing With the Stars'

September 20, 2009 6:39:40 PM PDT
Louie Vito knows all about double corks, mistyflips, ollies and swiffers. The rumba, salsa and tango? May as well have been a foreign language until a few weeks ago. The snowboarder is the latest - and perhaps most unlikely - athlete to take a turn on "Dancing With the Stars." The new season begins Monday night, with Vito paired with professional dancer Chelsie Hightower.

"It's pretty crazy. Who would have thought that 'Dancing With the Stars,' a show all about ballroom dancing and the big-time celebrities they've had on, would want a snowboarder?" he said. "I think that's really cool to see snowboarding is actually heading to mainstream and getting recognition."

A decade ago, going mainstream would have ranked right up there with slush for snowboarders. Some of the top riders even shunned the Nagano Olympics when snowboarding made its debut there, accusing the sport that prized independent expression and in-your-face attitude of selling out.

But the counterculture darling is all grown up now. The top riders all have long lists of corporate sponsors, and Nike even has a line of snowboarding gear - the ultimate sign of mainstream acceptance.

"It's such a fast-growing sport and such a creative sport, I think it's about time we hit the mainstream hard," said Vito, the overall Grand Prix champion the last two seasons and a medal favorite for the Vancouver Olympics.

Vito was laid up last summer after having surgery on his meniscus when "Dancing With the Stars" first approached him. When he didn't make the cut for the last season, he thought maybe they'd come back to him after Vancouver.

Then he got a call in the spring asking if he'd be interested in this season. With time on his hands until the snowboarding season begins in November, the 21-year-old thought, "Why not?"

"It's pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Vito said. "So I figured I'd make the most of it, especially since it wasn't conflicting with snowboarding at all."

Vito admits he's never watched a full episode of "Dancing With the Stars," and had "zero" ballroom dancing experience. He didn't even know what the foxtrot was when he and Hightower started working together.

"All of them have been pretty difficult," he said. "With the salsa, I have to learn how to roll my hips around and do a little booty shaking. And then with the foxtrot, it's got to be smooth with the rise and fall and keeping your posture up. Snowboarding, I'm hunched over and I'm allowed to do whatever I want.

"I'll do the wrong step and trip over her foot or stumble or lose my balance just because I've got to hold this for so long or I'm thinking about steps, thinking about posture, thinking about what I'm doing next, thinking about how my hand is," he said. "There are so many things you have to worry about."

One thing Vito isn't worrying about is what his fans or fellow snowboarders think.

The show will give snowboarding extra time in the spotlight before Vancouver and, Vito hopes, win the sport some new fans. He also hopes dancing live in front of 20-some million people each week will help him deal with the pressure leading up to Vancouver.

Because, make no mistake, Vito is, was and always will be a snowboarder.

Asked if he was going to cut his hair for the show, the shaggy-haired Vito grinned.

"I actually did have a haircut already, you guys can't tell?" he said. "Like I said, I've got to stay true to myself. I'm a snowboarder, I'm supposed to be a snowboarder on the show. This is who I am, and this is what I'm going to portray."

Although he's taken some good-natured ribbing, other riders are supportive of his new side gig.

"It's good for him and good for the sport," Steve Fisher said. "Otherwise, normal, everyday Americans really wouldn't know what snowboarding is. Louie's bringing it to their homes. He's bringing it to a new generation, a new group of people that now can be interested in snowboarding."

Vito has no idea how he'll fare in the competition, which also features swimmer Natalie Coughlin, who won six medals at the Beijing Olympics; NFL Hall of Famer Michael Irvin; mixed martial artist Chuck Liddell; entertainer Donny Osmond; singers Mya, Macy Gray and Aaron Carter; actors Melissa Joan Hart, Debi Mazar and Ashley Hamilton; models Joanna Krupa and Kathy Ireland; and reality stars Kelly Osbourne and Mark Dacascos.

But athletes, particularly Olympic athletes, have done well on "DWTS," winning five of the eight titles. Gymnast Shawn Johnson is the reigning champion, adding the mirror ball trophy to her Olympic gold medal just as figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi and short-track speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno did. Emmitt Smith and Helio Castroneves also won "DWTS."

"I'm interested to see what (the judges) think about me," Vito said. "They're probably going to be harsh because, let's be honest, I'm not really a ballroom dancing kind of guy. But I'm going to try my hardest.

"I tell everyone, `You can laugh at me all you want, I just need your votes."'

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