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Lipinski inspired by contestants on 'SYTYCD'

Olympic gold medalist relishing role as judge on dance competition
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Tara Lipinski was part of the panel of judges who narrowed down this season's 'So You Think You Can Dance' contestants to a top 20. -Adam Rose/FOX

It's been an eventful and exciting year for Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski. Her latest assignment -- being one of six judges to select this year's top 20 on So You Think You Can Dance -- was filled with intense pressure, but also great fun.

"It's exciting," Lipinski said. "It's their lives; that's what you realize when you're sitting there. It's an emotional roller coaster watching them go through this process.

"I didn't think it would be as hard to make those decisions," she added. "It was really difficult."

So You Think You Can Dance is in its 11th season. Each season starts with auditions in various cities around the country. From those auditions, dancers are invited to callbacks, which took place in Pasadena, California, this year. Lipinski and her fellow judges -- choreographer/director Adam Shankman, ballerina Irina Dvorovenko, SYTYCD executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, SYTYCD all-star Stephen "tWitch" Boss and judge Mary Murphy -- were responsible for paring down the field of 157 to the top 20 who will compete on the show this season.

Over the course of several days, they watched the contestants go through several rounds -- solos, hip hop, jazz, ballroom, contemporary, group routines and final solos -- eliminating as they went along.

"I've watched the show for years," said Lipinski, who studied dance when she was a competitive skater. "It was probably one of my favorite jobs I've ever done."

It was long hours, but Lipinski said being on the panel was incredible, with the judges heeping each other stay energized and entertained during breaks. She described Boss as one of the "nicest, coolest" people she's ever met.

To prepare for judging, Lipinski did her homework as she would for any assignment. However, as a lover of dance and the show itself, she had been preparing for years without ever knowing such a job would come her way.

"When you get there, you have to be in the moment," she said. "All the dancers that got to this point were so talented to begin with. It really does come down to personality and passion and having that factor on the stage.

"It's sort of like the Olympics," she continued. "It comes down to who can handle the pressure and who can reach across the stage and grab your attention, pull you in and take you on that journey."

Throughout the rounds, the judges gave positive and negative feedback to the contestants. Lipinski didn't hold back with her opinions. She said Lythgoe encouraged her to be vocal and tap into her own experience as a competitor.

"I tried to use that knowledge that I've had growing up," Lipinski said. "A lot of it had to do with the connection the dancers had with their music and with the judges. The ones that really stood out gave you chills."

While some of her comments were decisive, Lipinski said she tried to stay positive because as a competitor she understood what the dancers were going through. Knowing that most of the time dancers were performing in styles relatively unfamiliar to them, she also kept in mind how brilliant they were in their own genres and how daunting the challenge was.

"No matter what I say, I feel for them and truly understand their journey," she said. "It was inspiring and emotional."

Lipinski said some of the dancers had her hooked right from the get-go.

"There were so many who had that special something," Lipinski said. "When you watch these dancers, they're all so talented and you want them to show their best. You're rooting for them."

The final selections were intense and "got heated" at moments, but in the end, they were it was a group decisions. Lipinski said telling the contestants they had made top 20 was very exciting.

This season's competition kicks off with the top 20 on Wednesday night. Lipinski will return to judge twice this season. She also hopes to attend the Dizzy Feet gala (Lythgoe's foundation) on July 19.

Lipinski and Johnny Weir will commentate the Grand Prix events this fall. She also has several interesting projects in development that she cannot yet announce.

"It's a wild ride. You never know what to expect in life," she said. "I put a lot of hard work into commentary for years.

"This is the second big goal in life that I've been able to accomplish," she added. "For all this to happen, it's almost surreal.

"It's sort of starting over again. I'm so grateful and blessed. I will continue to work hard and enjoy all these moments."