Manu Vatuvei suffered a panic attack moments before he went on to perform the self-choreographed routine that saw him win Dancing With The Stars NZ 2019.
- As it happened: Dancing With The Stars NZ 2019 Grand Final
- Manu Vatuvei choreographs final dramatic dance on DWTS NZ
Speaking to Woman's Day, the former Warriors player known as 'The Beast' said the pressure of the crucial moment coupled with the personal narrative of his final dance almost derailed him.
"I was about to dance this story I really wanted to tell and it was important to me," Vatuvei said.
"I was panicking and just thinking I couldn't do it, and Loryn [his dance partner] was trying to calm me down."
Once the ballroom duo got into their final rehearsals, however, things started to fall into place.
"It started making me feel better, just focusing on the dancing, and it got me out of that head space," Vatuvei said.
"That's what dancing has done for me. I never knew it would have such a massive impact and it's where I find my comfort now."
The league star was praised throughout the competition for wearing his heart on his sleeve, demonstrated by the public response to his touching hand-holding moment with fellow contestant Glen Osbourne.
While Vatuvei rode an emotional rollercoaster during his dancing stint, his body was suffering too. A sudden sickness the weekend before the grand final further jeopardised his chances.
"My body shut down on me - it's happened in the past with league, where I get achy and start spewing. It's pretty much burn-out," he said.
Thankfully, some much needed rest saw Vatuvei able to fight off the illness and take to the dance floor with a routine that told the story of his career-ending Achilles injury while playing league overseas.
"I pitched the story idea to Loryn, and she encouraged me to choreograph the first part and just follow what I feel," said Vatuvei.
"When things went wrong, I couldn't go back and had to look towards the future and find something else I was really passionate about. That ended up being dancing."
Vatuvei earned a perfect score from all three judges for his show dance before beating out comedian Laura Daniels to take out the glitter ball trophy.