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August 24, 2015 04:45 PM

Bindi Irwin has found herself in many different spotlights since her father’s unexpected death in 2007. In her 17 years, she’s starred in award-winning children’s shows and become an outspoken teenage leader. Now Irwin is gearing up for a new adventure on Dancing with the Stars.

“I am absolutely thrilled. I can’t tell you how excited I am,” she told PEOPLE about joining the show’s season 21 roster. “I think that it is going to be a truly unbelievable new experience. I can’t wait to see what is to come.”

As we get ready to see what killer moves the wildlife conservationist will bring to the competition, we take a look back at her journey from a crocodile-befriending cutie to a confident, wise young woman.

"The Best Dad in the World"

Irwin delivered a moving eulogy for her father, Steve, after his sudden death at age 44. She was only 8 years old at the time, but Irwin honored her “hero” in front of a crowd of 5,000 (plus more than 300 million television viewers) at Australia Zoo.

“I have the best Daddy in the whole world, and I will miss him every day. When I see a crocodile I will always think of him, and I know that Daddy made this zoo so everyone could come and learn to love all the animals. Daddy made this place his whole life and now it’s our turn to help Daddy,” she said.

Four months later, Irwin appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman, where she continued singing her late father’s praises: “He was just the best dad in the world. And I know kids across the world always say ‘My dad was the best,’ but my dad was truly the best.”

Keeping a Legacy Alive

Irwin started following her dad’s footsteps in 2007, when she starred in her own wildlife documentary series Bindi, the Jungle Girl. She nabbed a Daytime Emmy Award for her work on the show, becoming the youngest person to ever take home the honor.

Then in 2012, the 13-year-old joined her brother Robert in Growing Up Wild, an online show about their lives at Australia Zoo.

“We never want Dad’s message to die,” she told PEOPLE about using the show to continue her father’s conservation efforts, “It’s wonderful that we’re able to carry on in his footsteps and keep his message alive.”

“It’s great to play with the animals and to know that they were the same animals that dad was brought up with, it’s pretty special,” she added.

Irwin and her brother had other ways to feel connected to their father.

“We’ll get up and put on a Daddy DVD, just to remember all of our wonderful adventures with him,” she said about re-watching her father’s shows, “We’ll often put in a documentary and watch him and have a smile on our face it’s a great way to start the day.”

A New Opportunity

In 2013, Irwin jumped at the chance to bring her love of wildlife to even an even bigger platform as the star of the Hallmark Channel movie Return to Nim’s Island.

“I see my filming career as an opportunity to get the message of conservation out to an even greater audience,” Irwin told PEOPLE about the role.

“Acting is something I’m extremely passionate about. Nim is the ultimate wildlife warrior so it was great, I could really relate to the role.”

And Irwin had no plans to step out of the spotlight. “I would love to expand my acting career and take on more roles, even if they do not directly have to do with wildlife,” she said.

Opening Up About Grief

In her August 2014 PEOPLE cover story, Irwin was candid about coping with her father’s death through the years.

“I remember after we lost Dad, so many adults came up to me and said, ‘Honey, time heals all wounds,’ ” the then 15-year-old said. “That is the biggest lie you will ever hear. It doesn’t. That part of you is gone forever. Time softens things, so now when I think back about Dad and the amazing memories we had together, I’m happy. But that kind of sadness never goes away. It’s like losing a piece of your heart that you never get back.”

“When you lose a loved one, you come to these crossroads. You can take the path that leads you down the aisle of sadness, or you can say, ‘I’m never going to let this person’s memory die. I’m going to make sure everything they worked for continues.’ ”

Living at Australia Zoo, which Irwin says "is really where my heart is," allows her to find a memory at every turn.

Her father left his handprints in concrete near the family’s house on the grounds. “We’ll put our hands in them, just to see how they’ve grown and how they match up to Dad’s,” says Irwin.

And the late TV personality also left a precious collection of letters behind: “Reading those letters back is special. I’m grateful he wrote them. Those little things remind you of him and give you strength to keep going.”

Becoming a Role Model

In February, Irwin told PEOPLE about how she hopes to use the attention given to her to set a good example for her peers.

“I want to encourage other young girls not to grow up too soon. Just enjoy the now,” she said.

“I hope I can help other girls realize that they don’t have to do things just because everyone else is doing them. I like dressing modestly, let’s put it like that. There can be a lot of pressure on girls to dress the way they wouldn’t normally dress: on social media, at school, among friends.”

A New Milestone

Earlier this month, Bindi revealed to Telegraph Sunday Style magazine that she had grown up in at least one respect: dating! The 17-year old is currently in a relationship with Chandler Powell, a professional wakeboarder.

“I was blessed to meet Chandler and his family back in November 2013,” she shared with the magazine. “We remained in touch and stayed friends. Since then, our friendship has developed into something really special.”

“We’re connected, which is so great,” she added. “He is passionate about wildlife and an extraordinary wakeboarder. We are excited to be achieving more conservation work together. I feel lucky to have him in my life.”

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