"Dancing With The Stars: All-Stars": The winner is ...

Melissa Rycroft and Tony Dovolani, center, hoist the mirrorball trophy after winning on "Dancing With The Stars: All-Stars" Tuesday, Nov. 27. 2012.

She was one of the few contestants this season who hadn't been a former champion or finalist. Her star power was not the brightest compared to actresses and Olympians this season. And her dance partner was a genial also-ran, always a bridesmaid, never a bride in 15 seasons.

None of that mattered Tuesday night as reality star and former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Melissa Rycroft sealed a strong late-season push by winning the first-ever all-star season of "Dancing With The Stars."

To grab the champions' mirrorball trophy, Melissa had to out-muscle season-long frontrunner Shawn Johnson, who had dominated Season 15 with gymnastic tricks and clever choreography.

"I didn't give myself enough credit coming into this. I've surprised myself and I think I've surprised a lot of people," said Rycroft before the results were announced.

It was a feel-good win as much for her popular partner, veteran pro Tony Dovolani, who finally won the trophy in the show's 15th season. Season after season, Dovolani found himself paired with ladies of a certain age (Susan Lucci, Jane Seymour, Wendy Williams), inept ingenues (Audrina Patridge) and obnoxious divas (Kate Gosselin). Always the gentleman, he persevered but never won.

In Rycroft, Dovolani had a filly who could run; and he challenged her week after week to turn in crisp performances with technique and artistry.

"You have been my greatest pleasure to watch," said head judge Len Goodman after Rycroft performed her last dance of the competition, a samba routine given to her an hour before.

"You have shown us nothing but artistry,'' said judge Carrie Ann Inaba.

Rycroft was in the lead coming into Tuesday's final performances, after the inexplicable decision by Shawn and her partner Derek Hough to perform a dance Monday with the same elements that had gotten them in hot water with the judges previously.

Shawn Johnson and Derek Hough perform a quick step on
Adam Taylor

On Monday, Shawn and Derek performed a quick step that violated some of the rules of that particular dance: there were lifts and long separations of the partners, who are supposed to stay in handhold for most of the dance.

That knocked Shawn into third place. And even a perfect dance Tuesday couldn't close the gap. That's the way it's been this season, where the competition has been so tight and the performance quality high. The margin between the teams has been slim.

But Shawn didn't seem to hold it against Derek. As the announcers discussed that controversial -- and costly -- decision, Shawn patted Derek's hand.

In the final dance of the night, the three ladies were given an "instant routine" and one hour to practice before performing it live. It's like a master's thesis for the season, to see if they can handle the demands of professional dancers who have little rehearsal time.

"These dances are a nightmare to pull off in such a short time," said judge Bruno Tonioli.

The ladies all did well, with Shawn getting perfect scores -- but not quite enough to make up for Monday's miscalculation.

In third place, no surprise, was Kelly Monaco, the former "DWTS" champion from all the way back to Season 1. Monaco escaped a possible early elimination in the beginning of the season and slowly captured the interest of the audience, which rescued her several times from the judges' low scores.

Speaking of capturing the audience's interest, Kelly and her partner Val Chmerkovskiy have been playing up a backstage romance on the show. On Tuesday, host Brooke Burke-Charvet tried to pin them down on the burning question: Romance or showmance?

"I hope everybody could have a friendship like this ... it's a foundation of an amazing friendship. It starts from scratch,'' said Kelly.

Said Val: "It's unconditional love for one another. Whatever that label is ... it doesn't have to be a boyfriend or a girlfriend."

Don't worry, I don't know what all that means, either.

Melissa Rycroft and Tony Dovolani perform on
Adam Taylor

Tuesday's win was a vindication for Rycroft, who came in third place to Johnson in Season 8. In the backstage footage of the show, Rycroft talked about that loss.

"I want to know what it feels like to win. I know what it felt like like to lose, and I certainly don't want to feel that again. I want to feel like a champion."

On Tuesday, Melissa Rycroft did know what that felt like. And based on her huge smile as she grabbed the trophy, it felt good.

  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.