07/09/2010 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Fans hoping to hear good news on Thursday night regarding So You Think You Can Dance
favorite Alex Wong
, were sorely disappointed when judge Nigel Lythgoe
said the ballet dancer, who thrilled audiences mostly recently with his historic hip-hop routine
, would need surgery as soon as possible, followed by at least three months rest in order to make a full recovery.
"I've had an amazing time and I can't get that anywhere else," Wong tells PEOPLE after an emotional farewell met by a standing ovation from the audience and judges. "Not ever from day one did I ever think I was going for the gold."
All three judges and fellow dancers gave Wong long, teary embraces after his goodbye on stage.
"My heart hurts a lot but I'm very, very grateful that you guys have given me this opportunity," Wong said after Ashley Galvan
and Billy Bell
, who were also in the bottom three, performed solos. (Wong did not perform, but was automatically in the bottom three due to his injury.)
"Alex is such a gift," judge Mia Michaels
told PEOPLE. "He is one of the greatest dancers, if not the greatest dancer that has ever come through our stage."
Judge Adam Shankman
said Wong had become the person to beat this season. "Whoever wins this year, will always say, 'Would they have won if Alex Wong was still in this competition?' " Shankman said.
With strong performances from Galvan and Bell, the other dancers now have to step it up, Michaels said. The Emmy-nominated choreographer also apologized Thursday to Adechike Torbert
after calling his performance Wednesday "empty."
"I saw in his energy that it broke him a little bit," Michaels said. "My frustration is because he has not yet stepped into his greatness and he has a lot of potential."
With Wong out of the competition, many are wondering who the new front-runner will be. Shankman believes Kent Boyd
will shine because he's a fan favorite. Lythgoe agrees, and adds Lauren
to his list of ones to watch.
"Everyone who has ever won this show has had the personality and not been the best technician," Lythgoe said.
As for Wong, he will have surgery on his Achilles tendon Tuesday in Los Angeles and plans to take it easy for a full recovery. He says he would love to come back for a future season of SYTYCD
"It's a lot to give up but I would love to be back," Wong tells PEOPLE. "I haven't finished my journey. I have so much more to learn." –MoMo Zhou