Melissa Rycroft, Tony Dovolani Melissa Rycroft, Tony Dovolani

On Monday night, Melissa Rycroft mounted the stairs to the skybox after all the couples were introduced for the opening segment of Dancing With the Stars: All Stars. "How are you feeling?" she was asked by someone in the crowd. Rycroft shrugged, making the best of a bad situation. "I'm here."

For Rycroft, 29, dancing on Monday night was a pain in the neck, literally. The contestant sustained a herniated disc while rehearsing a group routine on Sunday that sent her to the hospital in an ambulance. Rycroft and her professional partner, Tony Dovolani, didn't know if she was going to be cleared for competition until the next morning. 

"We didn't know if we were going to be able to compete or not," says Rycroft, moments after dancing on the live Monday broadcast in a high-flying team dance and taping her tango for the Tuesday show immediately thereafter. (The regular two-hour broadcast was split into a Monday and Tuesday show because of the presidential debate.) "I couldn't move my neck as much as I should have in the tango," she says, "but I'm happy that we were given the opportunity to go out there."

It was either that or be eliminated from the competition. "What I was told was that it was not an option to just sit out one night," she says. "So if I didn't get clearance, it meant it was severe enough not to let me come back." But neither routine was simplified to accommodate her injury. "It was too late to change them. I told Tony, 'I'm gonna go out and do it. And if something happens, I'm gonna squeeze your hand and that's your sign that something's going wrong.'"

While practicing the team freestyle, Rycroft's tennis shoe got stuck on the floor as she was sliding through Dovolani's legs. At the same time, her neck snapped back in a whiplash motion.

"I was the one who asked for the ambulance to come in, because you don't mess around with necks," says Dovolani. "In the end, this is just a dance competition, and all I wanted was for Melissa to be all right. The first thing that crossed my mind was that I wanted her to be okay, because she's a mom. I thought: Will she ever be able to pick up her baby again?"

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