'Dancing With the Stars: Athletes': Here's How the Pros Are Making the Mini Season Work (Exclusive)

ET breaks down all the ways the contestants and their pro partners are gearing up for their ballroom debut!

We're just three days away from the season premiere of Dancing With the Stars: Athletes!

Ten talented athletes will make their ballroom debut on Monday in a mini, four-week series that's sure to be more competitive than ever. In anticipation of what's to come, ET stopped by rehearsals and also chatted with the contestants and their pro partners over the phone, where they gave us some insight on how they plan to win the coveted mirrorball trophy in such a compact time frame.

For the pros, it's all about switching up their strategies. Unlike regular seasons, there will be an elimination during the first week. Lindsay Arnold confirmed that two couples will be going home the very first night of the competition, based on the judges' scores and viewers' live votes during the live broadcast airing at 8 p.m. ET on ABC. In other words, the pressure is on to make the best first impression possible to avoid being booted off first.

"I have no idea for how this is all going to work," Witney Carson joked. "This is so new for me. It's so different from anything else we've done in the past! I think because it's so short, we have to grab America's hearts and votes as soon as possible, so I think we're just kind of going all out."

"We're just not holding anything back the first week," she continued. "We're just going to try our best every single week because there's usually a strategy ... [during the regular season] we kind of plan things out until the very end, but now it's just going to be like, 'OK, here we are.' We're just gonna go for it."

Hear what all 10 pairs exclusively told ET about their strategies below. 


Dancing: Cha Cha "Finesse" by Bruno Mars 
Biggest competition: "At the end of the day, an athlete is going to win, so let that be us, why not?" -- Josh

As the only NFL star this season, the Washington Redskins cornerback says he is going to do his best to represent football. Plenty of former NFL stars have won the show, including Emmitt Smith (season 3), Hines Ward (season 12), Donald Driver (season 14) and Rashad Jennings (season 24).

"All of them were great, but [I've] got the whole 32 [NFL teams] on my back, so hopefully we can carry it on, all the teams, all the fans, all right here with us," he said.

He also has his eye on the prize... getting Sharna her first mirrorball!

"We've talked about that, though it seems like the only thing on her mind and the only thing on my plate as well," he said. "I have my reasons, she has hers, and its just like, you've gotta do it for each other. That's what makes us a perfect team."

"It's really, really tough [this season]," added Sharna. "Everyone is high-level competitive, everyone has the ability to push themselves really hard. I mean, I have no idea how it's gonna go down. You automatically think the figure skaters are going to have an advantage, but you don't know, you have no idea if they really will. Who knows! Josh [might] come out and do better than everybody."


Dancing: Salsa, "Mr. Put It Down" by Ricky Martin feat. Pitbull 
Biggest competition: "There are three figure skaters in the lineup, and in the past, figure skaters, they do well because they are a judged sport. I think they are always aware of the fact that their body positions have to be perfect. ... So even though figure skating is not exactly dance, they have a leg up on the competition in my opinion." -- Chris

The Olympic luger tells ET that he's taking cues from the best! While he credits Witney for being an awesome teacher, he says he has been watching videos of her season 19 partner (and mirrorball champion) Alfonso Ribeiro.

"I will never forget, day one of practice, Witney was like ... 'Go on to YouTube and watch my routines,'" Chris recalled. "And the first one I watched was Alfonso, who ended up winning the show. His moves are insane! I was like, 'No way can I do that.' But that is my model, that is what I am trying to accomplish."

Witney is always full of surprises, so naturally we had to ask her if fans will get to see the heartthrob shirtless.

"Yeah, we may or may not be doing it the first dance," she teased. "You'll just have to watch!"


Dancing: Cha Cha, "Sissy That Walk" by RuPaul
Biggest competition: "We have our eye to the top. And the highest thing that we can see, Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. He is, like, seven feet tall and he is a legend." -- Adam

The Olympic figure skater has, without a doubt, one of the best strategies -- he plans to channel the dance skills of Val Chmerkovskiy, aka Jenna's boyfriend, a veteran DWTS pro on the regular season! "I'm going to be channeling him the entire competition," he revealed, jokingly adding, "It entails a fuller beard and a small dog and a spray tan, so I think I've got it."

Adam and Jenna will definitely have their hands filled this season. The two will have to find time to rehearse during breaks from Adam's Stars on Ice tour, which forces the pair to travel to select cities on days when DWTS isn't being filmed.

"It's crazy," Adam said of the busy schedule, with Jenna adding she's already exhausted. "I think we are trying to focus on having a good time. And putting out the best dances we can. I think if we're able to have fun, we'll be able to take America on this crazy journey, and hopefully they will have fun, too."   

Jenna chimed in, telling ET, "I feel like I have the best partner. I feel like we have such a good connection and chemistry, and I'm just ready to go compete right now."


Dancing: Foxtrot, "When You Believe" by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey
Biggest competition: "Me. I think I am my biggest competition, my biggest competition is me." -- Tonya

The former Olympic figure skater is looking forward to being in the ballroom, but admits dancing is on an entirely different level from ice skating. "It is nothing like I have ever done before," she confessed. "The toes, the head, the hands. I mean, I finally got the hands right when I'm skating, and now I can't use those. I have to change everything to the dance hands, the dance face."

"This is truly like another chapter in my life, being able to come back after so long," she continued. "I'm 47 years old, I want other women out there to realize, you know what? We're not old, we just have slowed down. And now, going to go back out there, I'm going to do the best that I can."

Sasha has no doubt that his partner will excel this season, but believes the competition will be extra "cutthroat" due to how short it is. "You can't really go out week one kind of cruising week two, week three," he explained. "Week one is, like, all systems go! Two people [will] go home that week, and that's why it's important that Tonya comes out and enjoys every single second, every single moment."


Dancing: Salsa, "Them Girls" by Whitney Myer 
Biggest competition: "I think the ice skaters, but also Josh Norman. My brother [Dare]'s a football player, so I see how they all have quick feet. And they're pretty light on their feet, for being football players. So, I think he's going to be pretty good!" -- Arike

Gleb may be a seasoned pro, but admits this season will be like no other… which is why he and Arike are planning on coming in hot!

"It's going to be the toughest season ever. It's very different. There's no time to really pace yourself," he explained. "We have to get going straight away, there's no time for holding back. This is it, you know?"

"I think we work well together, and like Gleb said, we've got swag," Arike added of what she thinks their biggest strength is so far. "Biggest challenge is my posture. Basketball, you're hunched over, you're always in defensive stance, you've gotta be low. But here, you gotta be straight up, as stiff as a board, and I'm not used to that."


Dancing: Foxtrot, "Centerfield" by John Fogerty
Biggest competition: "The skaters, as they have the gift of amazing posture and 'dance' arms. They have been trained in dance movement, as skating is all about creating beautiful lines and pictures on the ice. It’s so graceful and fluid. On top of that, they know how to perform!" -- Emma

Johnny's strategy is quite simple: "Rehearse as much as we can."

"This [season] works for me because it's only four weeks of trying to better myself," he explained. "So far, so good. It's a lot of hard work, but this is something in my life that I'll need to grow into, you know? I can't always think I can play baseball, so dancing would be something I could do for a long time."

"Emma is terrific," he added. "We've been having a great time. Rehearsals have been running smooth."

ET also spoke with Emma, who echoed the former MLB star's words. "Having only four weeks means there's no time to play it safe or ease into the competition. We have to put our best foot forward from the very top and pull out all the stops to begin with. It also means every mistake can mean the difference between being eliminated or not. So, no room for error here, which means practice, practice, practice!"


Dancing: Viennese Waltz, "Feeling Good" by Avicii
Biggest competition: "The figure skaters, for sure. This is their life, this is what they do. I think they're going to be really amazing, and probably put together some awesome dances. And Johnny Damon. We were on Celebrity Apprentice together a few years ago, and he's just awesome." -- Jamie

When it comes to strategy, Jamie is relying on positive energy and good vibes.

"I think my strategy is to just friggen go out there and give it my all!" she said. "I know I don't have a huge background in this, so I'm not going to act like I'm a professional dancer. I'm going to keep it light, keep it fun and let my spirit shine."

"I just want to enjoy the whole experience," she continued. "Have fun, learn something new and spread good vibes."

As for Artem, he is just excited for a new challenge. "[This season is] going to be really exciting," he said. "I don't think we've ever done anything like it."

"Athletes notoriously do so well on the show, so I feel like it's going to be very competitive," he added. "I think everyone's really going to love it."


Dancing: Foxtrot, "All-American Girl" by Carrie Underwood
Biggest competition: "Our biggest competition is ourselves." -- Jennie

Look out for the Olympian softball pitcher this season, because she says she's not holding anything back!

"Our strategy is to bring it week one like it's week six... or 10," she explained. "My greatest challenge is my pursuit of perfection. I'm trying to find my inner Keo, and adding that extra Hollywood to it. Our greatest strength is our energy and synergy. We are a great team!"

Keo agreed, telling ET, "My strategy for the season is making sure that everything you're supposed to do throughout the whole season we do in the first show. It's like the finale on week one!"

"My greatest challenge is for her to have her own flavor in the dance," he added. "Athletes are trained to do exactly what they're told, so breaking that barrier and dancing how she wants to dance -- do the choreography, but add her own flavor and personality."


Dancing: Cha Cha, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)" by Stevie Wonder
Biggest competition: "I would say the ice skater, Adam Rippon. He dances, ice skate dancing is what he does for a living, so that's a whole lot more experience and practice that he's had at this." -- Kareem

As their team name points out, Kareem and Lindsay's biggest challenge is their massive height difference -- Kareem stands at 7' 2' while Lindsay is 5' 6" -- but the two are (somehow) making it work! "It's obviously something that is there and everybody's gonna notice it," Lindsay, who won last season's mirrorball with Jordan Fisher, explained. "It's the biggest height difference that's actually ever been on the show, so we're definitely getting creative and making it work. But it's actually really fun and I love it as a choreographer to try to just push the boundaries and do things people haven't done before."

Luckily, the NBA legend does have some dance training under his belt. "I [learned] the basics for jazz and tap when I was like eight or nine years old," he shared. "I've always enjoyed dancing. My dad was a very good dancer."

"He knew the Lindy Hoppers and he could do all of those steps," he added. "I remember when I was a kid, a lot of my parents' friends would ask him to show them a couple of steps sometimes when we'd entertain at our home. So, dance has always been something I've enjoyed and had fun with."


Dancing: Salsa, "No Excuses" by Meghan Trainor 
Biggest competition: "I think I might be the most competitive person, but I love Adam. I want to make it to the finale, so make sure you vote for me! But if we could do it together [the finale], that would be to die for. Honestly, it's not our decision, it's America's decision. So, let the best person win." -- Mirai

Like Adam and Jenna, Mirai and Alan will also be traveling to select cities for the Stars on Ice tour while competing on DWTS. Mirai admitted to ET that she has shed quite a few tears in rehearsals already, but Alan has helped her power through all the tough moments.

"Basically, I cry a little and then I'm ready to go again," the Olympic figure skater explained, telling ET there's a few things she needs to work on. "[My hips] are a little immobile right now. Disadvantage. Alan is working on [my sexiness]. It's not my forte. I like to be graceful, but Dancing with the Stars is bringing out a new side of me. Athlete edition, girl."

As fans of the show will recall, Alan just made his debut as a pro last season with Debbie Gibson, and he couldn't be happier about having a partner who could potentially get him his first mirrorball. "It feels incredible [having Mirai]," he gushed. "There is also a lot of pressure with the expectations that we are going to have. I call her the firecracker."

"We are trying to really hit the ground running," he added of their strategy. "It is week one, but we are not dancing like it is week one -- we are going to be dancing like it's week seven. We are doing a really intense routine and it is not easy. I've never got to experience such a great person that could pick up the dances so well, even though it is so different than what she usually does."

Dancing With the Stars returns Monday at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.

Additional reporting by Angelique Jackson, Lauren Zima and Nischelle Turner.


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