11/23/2010 AT 7:00 AM ET
In the weeks, days and hours leading up to the season 11 finale, the big debate among Dancing with the Stars fans was how did Bristol Palin outlast contestants like Brandy and Audrina Patridge, whose ballroom skills were superior? But in the minutes that followed Monday night’s performance show, it was clear inside the ballroom that Palin was just as deserving as Jennifer Grey and Kyle Massey of a shot at the mirror ball trophy.
So who will win? It’s anybody’s guess, judge Carrie Ann Inaba told PEOPLE backstage after the broadcast.
“If ever there was a season that’s hard to predict I think it’s this one,” Inaba said, acknowledging that it isn’t the first one in which fan votes are influencing who advances in the competition. “I wish the judges’ scores carried more weight. But America always gets it right.”
Throughout the night, not a word about voting conspiracies was spoken and not an ounce of animosity existed inside the most beloved ballroom in America. Palin’s mother, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, gave equal praise – in the form of raucous applause and cheering – to all of the evening’s dancers.
“The dynamic between the three finalists is fantastic. The energy backstage was so positive,” Grey’s partner Derek Hough told PEOPLE minutes after the show ended.
“This was an amazing finale that I think nobody thought was coming,” Massey’s partner Lacey Schwimmer said. “Everybody was strong in their own way. Some people rose to the occasion and some people were just obviously going to be great. It’s been awesome.”
Bristol Steps Up
Rising to the occasion was Palin, 20, whose scores with partner Mark Ballas were the duo’s highest of the season. Minutes before they performed their first dance of the night, the jive, Palin held hands and spoke quietly with her mother, who was seated in the front row along with several family members.
“We had a little moment to ourselves and it was nice,” Bristol said of her mother’s pep talk. “It added confidence to my jive.”
And it was the jive, for which Palin and Ballas earned their best score, that she performed as her redemption dance. “I’ve come a long way in the last 10 weeks and learned how to dance, learned how to perform and it’s been the time of my life,” she said.
The supporters were out in full force for the other contestants, too. Grey’s contingent included her hubby Clark Gregg, her daughter Stella, and longtime pals Jamie Lee Curtis and Melanie Griffith. Massey’s clan included his brother Chris, his mother Angel and High School Musical star Corbin Bleu.
“It used to be that I’d go out and little kids would go, ‘That’s the guy from Disney Channel.’ Now it’s grownups saying, ‘That’s the guy from Dancing with the Stars,” Massey said. “The whole competition, we worked so hard to get here.”
The Time of My Life
All three finalists reveled in the excitement of the evening, the night before their final spin on the parquet.
“I enjoyed myself so much tonight. There was a moment I wasn’t afraid,” says Grey, who said at the beginning of the season that by saying yes to being on the show, she was “facing my fears head on.”
But after nailing perfect scores on both of her dances for the second consecutive week, a serene Grey said simply, “This joy I will never forget.”
On Tuesday’s two-hour live results show, which airs (9 a.m. ET) on ABC, each couple will perform two more dances to be scored only by the judges. Those points, combined with Monday night’s judges’ scores, will account for 50 percent of each contestant’s overall tally. The rest is up to the voters.