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The panic attack that nearly derailed Manu Vatuvei's winning DWTS performance

''I was panicking and just thinking I couldn't do it, and Loryn was trying to calm me down.''

By Cloe Willetts
When this year's Dancing with the Stars winner Manu Vatuvei accepted the coveted mirror ball trophy under a shower of golden confetti, audiences saw him beam. But no-one knew that just moments before stepping out to perform his emotional last dance at the grand finale, the father-of-four suffered a panic attack.
"I was about to dance this story I really wanted to tell and it was important to me," explains the 33-year-old former Warriors player, aka "The Beast". "I was panicking and just thinking I couldn't do it, and Loryn was trying to calm me down."
Loryn Reynolds, 23, his devoted dance partner on Three's hit reality series, tried to talk Manu through the anxiety, but it wasn't until he started practising their ballroom-inspired dance set to Everybody Wants to Rule the World that the panic began to subside.
"It started making me feel better, just focusing on the dancing, and it got me out of that head space," reveals Manu. "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."
Watch: Manu and Loryn give the cutest interview we've seen. Article continues below.
The captivating dance – partly choreographed by Manu and receiving a perfect judges' score of 30 – represented his setback in rugby league two years ago. At the time, he was playing for the Salford Red Devils in England, but he had to return home early because of a career-ending Achilles injury.
"I pitched the story idea to Loryn, and she encouraged me to choreograph the first part and just follow what I feel," says the dance champ, who played with the Warriors for 13 years.
"The rugby ball at the start symbolised how happy I was playing league. 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."
Manu playing for the Warriors. Image: Getty
Two days before Manu won against DWTS runner-up Laura Daniel, 29, there were concerns whether he'd even make the grand finale because of sudden illness.
"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," explains Manu, who married wife Jenny almost 10 years ago. "I was driving when I felt it come on and made it home just in time."
Instead of appearing on Three's The Project that evening, he took painkillers and slept it off, saying, "It was good timing because it had gone by Sunday."
Manu and his wife, Jenny.
Manu went on to dance his heart out for the charity KidsCan – as well as for his excited daughters Makayla, 12, Savannah, eight, Eva, five, and three-year-old Aaliyah, who screamed the house down when he won.
While the girls watched the finale from home with their grandparents, Manu's high-school sweetheart Jenny, 33, was there in person.
"Watching from the audience was amazing and completely different from the league field!" his thrilled wife tells. "I'm so proud that Manu was able to step out of his comfort zone and show himself he's more than just a footy player."
His daughters are enjoying having the glistening trophy sit next to their dad's many league awards, and have been making Manu put his new lifting skills to use on them!
"They always wished me luck when I left for dancing, but they were also my worst critics, telling me what I should've done if I made a mistake!" he laughs.
"When I put the dance music on at home, the youngest two would copy me."
The larger-than-life league star admits he didn't think he'd go all the way when he signed up for the dancing competition, and wanted to give up at times.
Manu with his supportive family, wife Jenny, right, and daughters from left Makayla, Savannah, Aaliyah and Eden.
"Sometimes I couldn't get a move or I made mistakes and would just bawl, but I know it was the same for the other dancers, who are all champs," tells Manu.
"It's been a crazy but enjoyable ride and you'll be surprised what your body can do in a short amount of time. I didn't know I could do the splits until I did them!"
Manu also lost eight kilos during the season, which took pressure off his sports-injured knees. But the Auckland-based dad, whose hopes of launching a pro-boxing career were dashed last year when doctors discovered a cyst on his brain, admits he'd have to "tick every box" with his health to ever play rugby league professionally again.
Right now, he's focusing on helping the Tongan national team.
He's also planning on returning to construction work and will continue ballroom dancing in his spare time with make-up artist Loryn.
"Dancing has brought me a lot of things, like happiness and learning to show people how I feel," enthuses Manu.
"Some people might see it as soft, but you become stronger each time you show that emotion. It didn't make me feel less of a man. Dancing has definitely made me a better person."

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