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The women's individual all-around wasn't one of those
competitions where one transcendental performance begat another.
This was a clawing, nerve-wracking fight to the finish that
wasn't decided until the last tumbler, Chinese featherweight Mo
Huilan, skidded off the brilliant blue floor exercise mat as if
blown by some ill wind. Until then, there was no guarantee that
Ukraine gymnast Lilia Podkopayeva's stealthy climb up the leader
board--a coolly efficient move from sixth to fifth to third--would
end with the 17-year-old Podkopayeva's dropping her head on a
friend's shoulder, overcome with joy and disbelief.

After three of the four rotations were completed, the fight for
the gold medal last night at the Georgia Dome had come to this:
The top eight women, led by Mo and Dina Kochetkova of Russia,
were separated by .265 of a point, and two other contenders,
Dominique Dawes and Shannon Miller of the U.S., were left to
wipe away tears, their hopes of a 1-2 finish slayed by botched
floor exercises that came just moments apart. Dawes had led the
pack through two rotations with 19.637 points, and Miller was in
third at 19.612.

Svetlana Khorkina of Russia was the first to succumb on the
final apparatus--inexplicably missing a release move on the
uneven bars by more than a foot. Kochetkova dropped out of the
picture too, with two lackluster scores on the vault moments
after Podkopayeva began her breathtaking tumbling with a move
few women dare to try: a front double somersault with a half

But a troika of Romanians had left Podkopayeva minuscule margin
for error. Gina Gogean, the heavy-lidded young woman with the
Mona Lisa smile, reaped a solid 9.775 on the vault and
countrywoman Simona Amanar topped that with a 9.843 on the same
apparatus. Then their teammate Lavinia Milosovici hung up a
gasp-inducing 9.812--the best floor exercise of the night--only
to have Podkopayeva respond with a 9.887. As it turned out, that
score held up for the victory after Mo completed the madcap
finish by staggering out-of-bounds during one of her tumbling
passes--a stunning turnaround, considering that one apparatus
earlier she was as surefooted on the four-inch-wide balance beam
as she would have been strolling down a boulevard.

Podkopayeva's total of 39.255 edged Gogean's 39.075. Amanar and
Milosovici each won a bronze after tying at 39.067. Miller, the
most decorated gymnast in American history, ended her career
with an eighth-place finish before an audience that included the
First Family. U.S. teammate Dominique Moceanu finished ninth,
and Dawes wound up 17th.

Rather than dwell on what could have been, all three Americans
said they took solace in having won the team gold medal on
Monday night. "We were so excited. Maybe we lost our focus after
that," Miller said, knowing full well there is no allowance for
such error in Olympic gymnastics.

Podkopayeva said as much as she spoke of having to overcome a
broken rib earlier this year as well as the recent death of her
grandmother. For Gogean, there was the challenge of bouncing
back from an appendicitis operation she had just five weeks
before the Games. For Amanar, there was the pressure of proving
that she deserved to replace Alexandra Marinescu in the
all-around lineup, even though Marinescu had posted the higher
combined score of the two in the team competition. (Romanian
coach Octavian Belu, evincing no sympathy for the 15-year-old
Marinescu, explained that it was simply a coaching decision
based on the fact that Amanar's optional scores on Monday were
the highest that day.)

Podkopayeva said she felt an awesome responsibility as she
traveled through her four routines. The mere mention of her
grandmother afterward made tears puddle in her eyes. "Without
her I would not be a gymnast," she explained. She smiled when
informed she'd become the first woman gymnast since the great
Lyudmila Turischeva of the Soviet Union to follow a world
championship win with the Olympic all-around title. "I did feel
some responsibility," Podkopayeva said. "I'm the champion of the
world and Europe. I'm very happy that as of tonight, Ukraine is
the strongest."

COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR.Podkopayeva (left) was a model of consistency, but Dawes skidded out-of-bounds, out of the medal picture and out of the Georgia Dome in tears. [Lilia Podkopayeva in air]

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: AL TIELEMANS (2) [See caption above--Dominique Dawes performing floor exercise; Dominique Dawes weeping]