Teaching pro athletes how to tango, foxtrot and waltz has become routine for 23-year-old Lindsay Arnold, who coached boxer Victor Ortiz, retired NFL player Calvin Johnson, Jr. and now former Chicago Cubs catcher David Ross on Season 24 of "Dancing with the Stars" (DWTS).
Arnold and Ross have trained together for several hours every day for the past 11 weeks, and it's paid off: The duo has made it into the season finale. Part 2 of the two-night finale airs on Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC.
However, the fight for the mirror ball trophy won't come easy. Arnold and Ross' competition includes NFL free agent Rashad Jennings and partner Emma Slater as well as Fifth Harmony's Normani Kordei and "DWTS" vet Val Chmerkovskiy.
espnW caught up with Arnold to discuss working with Ross, crafting the finale choreography and her response to people who say dance isn't a sport.
espnW: How do you get Ross to showcase his personality on the dance floor?
Lindsay Arnold: David's big breakthrough moment was when we did our "Magic Mike" routine and he had to do a strip tease on national television. That pulled him right out of his shell. He was not totally on board for it at first, but I kept telling him, "You have to own it and go for it or it will just look silly." And he owned it, and we got such great feedback for it.
espnW: What are some of the benefits of being partnered with an athlete?
LA: The fact that athletes have been coached their entire lives helps tremendously, because it's a hard pill to swallow to be instructed by someone you're just meeting. The other aspect is that they know how to be on a team and understand that it's about a group win, opposed to an individual win. Also, we rehearse crazy hours, and it's very tiring. It helps that athletes have the stamina and know what it's like to really grind out and work hard.
espnW: How did you tailor your dance instruction for Ross?
LA: Every single season I am teaching differently, going about the choreography in a new way and changing up the music. With David, I realized right off the back that he was going to entertain and bring the performance level every week. Even if he wasn't the best or perfect, he was going to give it all he's got. So, playing off of his strength this season, I made sure every dance was a fun personality-driven routine. And when we got to the serious stuff, I made sure it meant something to David. He is such a genuine person that it's hard for him to fake emotion. I needed to make sure all of the dances touched him personally. And that really worked for us because our strongest dance this season was our waltz when we danced to "Humble and Kind" by Tim McGraw. Because [the song] meant so much to David, his body naturally danced better.
espnW: How do you deal with criticism from "DWTS" judges?
LA: I've come to realize that I care more about my personal journey than comparing it to others. In my first couple of seasons, it would be really discouraging if I saw people getting 10s and I wasn't. With David, we recognize that he isn't the strongest dancer and that he's not going to be perfect, but that's okay because if you look at our week-to-week progression, it's so impressive and it makes me really proud.
And yes, the judges will always have something to say but if we give it everything we have then we're fine with them critiquing us because at the end of the day, we're here to get better.
espnW: What have you learned from working with Ross?
LA: David is a great example of how success and fame is awesome -- but, family, who you are as a person, your priorities and happiness are so much more meaningful. We've taken each week as it comes and been super grateful for everything that we have, instead of only focusing on winning.
espnW: How did you get into dance and further develop your skill set?
LA: My mother put me in dance class at 4-years-old and I ended up loving it. Funny enough, my parents ended up opening a dance studio when I was 14 and that's where my three younger sisters and I all grew up dancing. I would go to school and then head straight to dance from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. every single day.
I took ballet classes to help me with strengthening and flexibility, jazz that helped with stamina and muscle building and technique classes. I trained in all styles of dance from jazz, contemporary, hip-hop, Latin and ballroom.
espnW: What is your clap back response to people who say "dance is not a sport?"
LA: If you don't think dancing is a sport, please try "DWTS!" [My dance partner from Season 23] Calvin Johnson said one of the biggest things he took from the show was a new respect for dancers. I remember he said, 'Lindsay, I didn't consider [dancing] a sport because I didn't understand it, but after doing a season with you, I have so much respect for dancers and the entertainment you guys can bring while still doing the sport.'
This interview has been edited for length.
Gianina Thompson is ESPN's senior publicist for NBA and MLB on-air personalities and shows. She's sports all day, every day and lives for overtime games, unless it's on Thursday nights when she's locked onto "Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal," and "How to Get Away with Murder."