The season finale of “Dancing with the Stars” airs Tuesday night, and by the end of the two-hour extravaganza, a new dancing king or queen will reign supreme. With Marissa Jaret Winokur out of the picture — and let's face it, she never had a shot at going all the way — the quest for the ballroom best comes down to the three competitors.
In what's shaped up to be a fairly predictable run so far, the battle between Kristi Yamaguchi, Jason Taylor and Cristián de la Fuente seems like a lock. A woman is likely to take home the coveted mirror ball for the first time since the show's premiere season. But, as any "Dancing" fan knows, the best dancer and the winner are often two different contestants.
When Mel B went up against Helio Castroneves last season, the trophy was the Spice Girl's to lose. And lose she did, as viewer voters sided with the charismatic, though less sure-footed racing champ. Which celebrity soft shoe has what it takes to win over the all-important home audience this time around? It's still anyone's game.
The obvious pick Ever since the first week of competition, Kristi's been the one to watch. Technically speaking, she brings more precision to the floor than any of the past ballroom pretenders. And why shouldn't she? No one's entered the contest with a bigger history of nailing routines and kudos for performance-as-sport.
The ringer factor is the only real drawback Kristi packs. She may be a newbie to the cha-cha-cha, but the Oympic gold medallist knows all about grueling rehearsals, complex choreography, detailed arm and leg lines, and generally moving for the masses. Though Kristi frequently dismisses her built-in advantage, figure skating paved the way for her dance floor success so far.
For overly prepared performers in previous seasons, like Mark Ballas' last partner, Sabrina Bryan, taking to the ballroom basics too easily spelled an early exit. Not so for Kristi. She's sailed through the show without feeling the heat of the red spotlight of doom once.
In short, the viewers seem as smitten with her as the judges are. Maybe it's the pleasure of seeing something close to a professional caliber performance each week, or maybe fans are still rooting for a former Olympic champ. Either way, she's the one to beat.
A winning combination
And just who could dethrone this season's resident dancing queen? It's not hard to imagine Jason filling the usual spot. Yes, usual. You know, that moment of glory that's been reserved for a male athlete for the last three seasons of "Dancing With the Stars."
Past sports stars such as Emmitt Smith, Apolo Anton Ohno and the aforementioned Helio became fast fans favorites despite some flawed footwork. That has to work in Jason's favor. It doesn't hurt that the Miami Dolphins defensive end combines his sporting status with a daring stage presence. Plus, you know, he's easy on the eyes. That's worth a few votes right there.
All that aside, it's unfair to rank Jason's chance in the competition without throwing a nod to his knack. The man can dance. It's a rare treat to see someone of his physical stature — he's 6-foot-6 before putting on his dancing shoes — glide across the floor with ease. Well, semi-ease.
Jason's season-long hallmark is inconsistency. One week he's hot on Kristi's heels, the next he surpasses her, and the next he fumbles. He's a question mark. Winning or losing could come down to whether or not Jason brings his A-game to the very last dance.
It's never too late to come from behind So how does Cristián fit in? In the first few weeks of the game, Cristián's finale hopes were only about snagging a seat in the audience. He lacked both a discernable gift for movement and any real name recognition. That's an early ouster combo if ever one existed, and yet here he is.
The need to eject lesser left-foots allowed Cristián to stick around long enough to charm viewers and learn the basics. But even just a couple of weeks ago, it looked like Marissa stood a better chance than he did. That's when Cristián got his lucky break.
Sure, some dancers could view a ruptured tendon as a bad omen, but when Cristian's arm gave out on him during a substandard samba, he readied himself for a comeback. With some crucial choreography tweaks from Cheryl Burke, the international film and television "star" suddenly brought his best to the ballroom.
Good thing, too. Sympathy votes could have carried Cristián to the semifinals, but his unexpected come-from-behind surge changed up the game and added some much-needed suspense to the same-old same-old. Plus, everyone loves an underdog.
In the end, the finale's not a complete coin toss. Things are still looking good for Kristi, as the figure skater likely grabs the gold in a new sport Tuesday night. Still, if she doesn't, it won't be a crime against dance. A victory for either of this season's long shots might make for Wednesday morning water-cooler talk, but with worthy competitors like Jason and Cristian, fans win no matter what.
Ree Hines is a regular contributor to msnbc.com.