In the seconds before the “Dancing With the Stars” winner was identified Tuesday night, Paige VanZant stood, facing downward. Then, deaf model Nyle DiMarco was announced as the champion.
“As I look back, if I was just watching the show on TV and I saw someone like Nyle on, I would vote for him,” VanZant, an Ultimate Fighting Championship strawweight fighter, told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday. “He really was inspirational, doing things no one’s really done before. It was inspiring and I’m happy for him and how he has inspired people.”
While VanZant and her partner, Mark Ballas, closed Monday’s finale with the top combined scores in their “redemption” and freestyle dances, DiMarco’s stirring freestyle performance to a remake of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” moved the judges and masses.
“I gave it everything I’ve got and I can definitely say I tried my hardest in this competition,” VanZant said. “I feel like I still walked away with a victory because I was able to share my story.”
Following their Monday dance, Ballas told the judges through tears how proud he was that VanZant was able to summon the pain of being bullied as a child in Oregon and translate it in dancing, movingly, to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
“I feel like I was able, through [Ballas] to completely show off who I was through dance and the whole journey,” VanZant said. “It’s definitely something I still feel to this day, but I have grown a lot and I hope I can use my story to reach out to people who are experiencing the same thing.
“The show did force me to open up. It was something they wanted me to do for a very long time and I did finally get comfortable with it toward the end. I’m happy I was able to open up and share, and I hope I was able to inspire some people. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback, and I’ve partnered with an anti-bullying campaign. I wanted to get it out there because [bullying] is so prevalent today – it’s even worse because you can hide behind social media.”
She spoke to The Times from New York after appearing on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and before boarding a flight back to Los Angeles.
“I can’t believe I made it all the way through. It’s crazy that it’s really over, but it was an amazing experience and I’m ready to get back to the fight world,” VanZant said. “I couldn’t be happier with how all it all turned out, and I couldn’t be happier for Nyle.”
She returns to the UFC as a far more popular fighter after displaying her grit in a bloody-faced loss to Rose Namajunas in December. She has said before she might be back in the octagon by UFC 202 in September.
“We’ll start working working on a fight … I love fighting,” VanZant said. “I’ll fight whoever the UFC gives me. I’m really happy I brought fans to the UFC and excited to see how many people watch my next fight.”
She also could have powerful backup options in Hollywood, as fellow UFC women’s fighter Ronda Rousey has discovered.
VanZant, 22, said she’ll film a “small role” in Jean-Claude Van Damme’s next “Kickboxer” movie while training in Thailand, and her athletic and dancing prowess had some around “Dancing With the Stars” pushing to convince her to return as a professional partner on the show.
“No, I love [dancing], but I miss fighting and I’m ready to get back in the fight word and be immersed in mixed martial arts again because it’s my home,” VanZant said. “I can’t wait to see what opportunities come next and I’d like to take every one that comes my way.”