Michele Stueven and Tim Nudd
November 23, 2010 02:00 PM

On every season of Dancing with the Stars, the world discovers another unheralded star (or sometimes several). But what makes the show special is that the performers themselves are engaged in an exhausting yet illuminating process of self-discovery – of finding hidden reserves of strength and talent they never knew they had.

So it is this season with finalists Bristol Palin, Kyle Massey and Jennifer Grey, each of whom spoke to PEOPLE after Monday’s performances about the joys and pain of the grueling 10-week journey, which culminates Tuesday night when one of them will go home a winner.

“It has been a long journey,” says Palin, 20, who was almost considered a novelty contestant at the outset. “I think I’ve come a long way in the last 10 weeks, and have learned how to dance, learned how to perform. And this has just been the time of my life.”

Palin says she came into the competition believing in herself, and her success just reinforced and strengthened that. “I’m just thankful to have that newfound confidence,” she says.

Massey, 19, another big underdog 10 weeks ago, also remarked on how much he’s grown during the competition. “I came in with zero experience,” he says. “You learn so much. Just being around the professional dancers, it’s like, they teach without even knowing they’re teaching.”

Finally, Grey, 50, the most experienced of the finalists, nonetheless spoke about how difficult the relentless schedule has been. But it was all worth it in the end, she says.

“I think that the fatigue and the physical stuff that I had to go through was really hard,” she says. “But what I learned was that, actually, it’s just pain. And pain is passing. And this joy, I will never forget.”

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