Moves like a Paralympian: Athletes who dazzled the world on the dance floor

More than a dozen Paralympic medallists have taken part in TV dance competitions around the globe 29 Apr 2022
Philip Raabe leans over Birgit Skarstein, taking her and her wheelchair into a dip, as they perform a touching contemporary dance on Norway's SKal vi Danse.
Paralympic Para rowing champion Birgit Skarstein was the first wheelchair dancer to appear on Norway's Skal Vi Danse in the show's 16 seasons.
ⒸEspen Solli / TV 2

Nobody rips up the floor quite like a Paralympian.

From Para alpine skiers to Para triathletes, a variety of Paralympic medallists have twirled, dipped and dazzled at dancing competitions across the globe.

On 29 April, International Dance Day, we celebrate the Paralympians who swapped spandex for sequined dance gear and showed that the answer to, “Shall we dance?” is always “Yes”, no matter what sport you do.

Para Alpine skiing

Danelle Umstead has won three Paralympic medals in the women’s vision impaired class with her husband, Rob, as her guide. But after competing with Rob at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games Umstead swapped him for a new partner, Artem Chigvintsev - albeit only on the dance floor. 

The four-time Paralympian made her appearance on USA’s Dancing with the Stars in 2018. Four years later, she and Rob returned to the Paralympic slopes at Beijing 2022.

Para athletics

No Paralympic sport has produced more TV dance show contestants than Para athletics, and with a great track record too.

Sprint star Giusy Versace won Italy’s Ballando Con Le Stelle in 2014, while triple Paralympic medallist, discus and shot put thrower Oney Topia, repeated the feat three years later. 

Jonnie Peacock, the 100m T44 champion from London 2012 and Rio 2016, was the first Paralympian to appear on Great Britain’s Strictly Come Dancing. His 2017 run on the show culminated in an eighth-place finish and included a memorable jive to Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”.

London 2012 long jump champion Kelly Cartwright spun onto Australia’s Dancing with the Stars in 2015, finishing sixth overall. Another long jumper, Rio 2016 T42 champion Heinrich Popow – also a Paralympic medallist in the 100m and 200m - appeared on Germany’s Let’s Dance in 2017.

Paralympic silver medallist Mathias Mester is following in Popow’s footsteps in the current season of Let’s Dance and has already delivered some show stoppers.

Para Nordic skiing / Para rowing

The queen of multitasking, Birgit Skarstein, not only competed at two Paralympic Games six months apart - winning a gold medal in PR1 single sculls at Tokyo 2020 - but even managed to squeeze a successful dancing stint into the lead up to the Games. 

The dual athlete became the first wheelchair dancer to be featured on Norway’s Skal Vi Danse when she took to the stage in 2020 and finished fifth overall. Skarstein’s memorable performances included a perfect score for her passionate rumba and a complex quickstep that ended in her getting suspended on ropes hanging from the ceiling.

Para snowboard

Being a pioneer is nothing new to USA’s Amy Purdy. The triple Paralympic medallist was one of the main campaigners for including snowboarding on the Paralympic agenda at Sochi 2014. That same year she became the first Paralympic athlete to compete in a TV dance competition when she took part in Dancing with the Stars.

Purdy collected three perfect scores and finished as the runner-up. Two years later, she had another unforgettable dance appearance, swaying with a robot at the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

Para swimming

One of the most recent Paralympians who transformed into dance show contestants is Para swimmer Ellen Keane, who appeared on Ireland’s Dancing with the Stars in early 2022 and made it into the top four. A few months before, Keane won gold in the 100m breaststroke SB8 at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

London 2012 100m freestyle S6 champion Victoria Arlen also achieved success on the dance floor, finishing fifth overall in the USA edition of the show.

Para table tennis

Para table tennis player Will Bayley won gold in the men’s singles class 7 at Rio 2016, making him a four-time Paralympic medallist. The athlete was not as prolific in his dance efforts, however, as his run on Strictly Come Dancing in 2019 came to an end when he injured his knee ahead of the sixth week of competition.

But even with his short time on the show, Bayley still managed to make an impression thanks to his touching contemporary dance about being a childhood cancer survivor, set to Lukas Graham’s “7 Years”.

Para triathlon

Great Britain’s Lauren Steadman made the switch from Para swimming to Para triathlon after London 2012 and won back-to-back medals in the following editions of the Paralympic Games. She collected a silver in the women’s PT4 class at Rio 2016 and a gold in the women’s PTS5 class at Tokyo 2020. 

In between, Steadman took part in the 2018 edition of Strictly Come Dancing and finished fifth overall, barely missing a spot in the finale.