As one of the world's top wheelchair racers, Paralympian Colin Mathieson is used to overcoming obstacles.
The 34-year-old elite athlete, born with spina bifida, has a mantel groaning with Canadian championship trophies, a bag stuffed with world championship medals, as well as a bronze in the 4x440-metre relay from the 1996 Summer Paralympics in Atlanta.
He's currently in the middle of his racing season and training for the world championships in July.
But none of this prepared him for the unmitigated terror of racing into a dance studio for the first time to train for Dancing With Celebrities, the upcoming ballroom battle in support of the SMD Foundation/Easter Seals Manitoba.
"I have never danced at all in my entire life," Colin confessed Monday morning when I dropped into the Arthur Murray Dance Studio on St. James Street to watch the competitors and their dance instructors get in some eleventh-hour practice for Saturday night's seventh annual ballroom showdown at the Fairmont Winnipeg.
"Not only did I have to learn the samba, I had to learn how to dance," Colin said after a quick whirl around the floor with partner Alicia Cascaval, co-owner of the dance studio. "Alicia had to figure out how to translate the samba for a wheelchair because I don't take the same number of steps. I have to memorize it as one smooth, fluid motion. It's really challenging."
When he races, the contest ends in seconds, while their samba routine cobbled together over the last four months is about two and a half minutes of non-stop, heart-pounding dancing.
"Dancing is the first new thing I've done in my entire life that's required this much practice and this steep a learning curve," Colin laughed. "It's fantastic! I don't see myself doing it professionally, but it's a neat set of skills to acquire."
For the third straight year, I'll be one of the "expert judges" as Colin and three other local personalities try to spin, dip and waltz their way to ballroom glory Saturday night.
As a crusading journalist, I asked Alicia, who will also be performing the quickstep with my buddy Big Daddy Tazz, one of Canada's top comedians, whether anyone had sustained a horrific injury during their intensive training.
"Tazz stepped on my toes once," she giggled. "Today, Colin almost fell out of his chair because he was going at mach speed. We were travelling really fast towards each other and one of his wheels got stuck and he almost went flying."
But the seasoned dancer is inspired and amazed at how quickly her rookie partners have mastered their routines.
"Tazz is very light on his feet," she said of my pal, who will forgive me for gently saying he resembles a bowling ball in a Hawaiian shirt. "He loves the dancing. It takes him to another place when he's here. And Colin is amazing. A lot of people think just because you have a disability you can't dance, but that's not true."
For his part, Tazz admits he was out of his comfort zone the moment he walked into the studio. The biggest challenge was conquering his fear that he couldn't dance.
"I'm 270 pounds and I've always wanted to dance," he told me, beaming. "But I never thought I could. When I started, I was dancing like a pregnant yak in high heels but with a nice hat. Now I feel graceful. I feel like a gazelle on Rollerblades."
As I looked on, Derek Taylor, the friendly co-host of the morning news on Global Winnipeg, swayed through the sultry steps of the rumba with his graceful partner Julia Kolesnik.
"I'm supposed to look sexy and macho," Derek confessed later. "It's awkward because I'm not really sexy in my regular life. I'm more dorky. Dancing has that athletic component but there's a finesse component, too, and that's been the hardest part for me. Picking up the steps is easy, but figuring out where to point your toes and your arm and your chest -- that's hard!"
For sheer energy, it will be hard to match the fire of Blue Bomber Hall of Famer Wade Miller, a special-teams ace famous for rumbling down the field with mayhem on his mind. Will the former fullback/linebacker bring the same intensity when he hurls himself into the cha-cha with lovely partner Jennifer Grayda?
"I can't wait for Saturday night!" Wade chirped proudly. "We're going to kick some butt!"
So how does twirling on a dance floor compare with knocking heads on the gridiron? "It's been a lot tougher than I thought it would be," Wade said. "My ankles are pretty sore. I can't keep the beat but we've practised so many times I've got it down."
I confronted Wade with rumours his big finale just might include a death-defying cartwheel. But the business tycoon wouldn't bite.
"Let's just say there might be something at the end most people will be surprised by."