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Pipe up the band for boarder 'Dancing With the Stars'

September 11, 2009 | 11:33 am

VitoMost of the athletes at this week's U.S. Olympic media summit in Chicago have February circled on their calendars, with their minds focused entirely on getting to the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Olympic snowboard hopeful Louie Vito has what much of the American public would consider a far more significant moment coming up a lot sooner.

 Vito makes his debut on "Dancing with the Stars" on Sept. 21.

"I just want to go out there and not fall or mess up to where people notice," Vito said.

He was talking about the dance show, not the Olympics.

Vito, 21, is expected to make the U.S. Olympic team in halfpipe, the event where snowboard superstar Shaun White not only is defending champion but one of the most recognized athletes among Gens X, Y and Z in the United States.

Given the runaway popularity of "Dancing," Vito has a chance to achieve even greater public recognition should he survive a few weeks of the televised competition.

"Laugh at me all you want,'' Vito said. "Just give me your vote."

No matter what happens, Vito already has come a long way, both on the snow and the dance floor.

I mean, who would have expected a kid who grew up in Bellefontaine, Ohio and boarded on trash landfill hills in Michigan to be an Olympic contender in snowboard?

So I asked Vito whether it was a longer shot for him to be on Dancing or the Olympic team.

"They are both pretty out there,'' he said. "Who would have thought 'Dancing with the Stars' would want a snowboarder?"

Olympic champions Kristi Yamaguchi (figure skating) and Apolo Anton Ohno (speedskating) both went on to become "Dancing winners," but Vito leaves you with the impression he is not likely to follow in their dance steps.

"To be honest, I'm not a ballroom dancing type of guy," Vito said. "I have pretty much no idea what is going on."

He admitted to having never watched the show, catching a few performances (Emmitt Smith, Floyd Mayweather, Master P) on YouTube.  Vito is trying to follow the tips (orders?) given him by his pro partner, Chelsie Hightower, 20, who is in her second year on the show.

"She is teaching me not to do the wrong step and trip over my feet," Vito said.

Vito said "Dancing with the Stars" first approached him for the 2008 season. When that didn't work out, he thought they wouldn't ask again until after the Olympics.  When the call came again last spring, it was too good to pass up, but he has no illusions about where it could take him.

"I'm a snowboarder," he said. "I'm supposed to be a snowboarder on the show."

Vito could be tied up dancing until November, but he has gotten the show's approval to take time away for snowboard training if needed.  He figures the four to six hours of dance practice a day will keep him fit.

"I have talked to other athletes who said they were in a lot better shape after doing the show," he said.

Vito also thinks being out of his comfort zone will help him on the halfpipe.

"If I can get in shape to do something I'm not comfortable with in front of 22 million (TV) viewers a week, it should be a breeze to be in front of the people who are at a (snowboarding) competition," he said.

-- Philip Hersh

Photo: Louie Vito. Credit: Associated Press