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U.S. gymnasts a happy 2nd

The U.S. women's gymnastics squad nearly had a smile seizure after Sunday's compulsory competition.

You'd smile, too, if you were in second place after the compulsories, ahead of defending world champion Romania, and halfway (maybe) to your first team gold medal. So giddy was the U.S. contingent, that assistant coaches Steve Nunno and Bela Karolyi set personal bests in high fives and bear hugs.

"Something came over me," said Nunno, who coaches team star Shannon Miller. "I started getting the Karolyi hug fever. I felt like Jim Valvano, looking for somebody to hug."

He had plenty to choose from, beginning with Miller, the U.S. national champion who recorded the team's highest scores on the balance beam and uneven bars, and had the second-highest scores on the vault and floor exercise. Only world champion Lilia Podkopayeva of Ukraine finished ahead of Miller on Sunday.

And then there was 14-year-old Dominique Moceanu, who, in her first competition since a stress fracture was diagnosed in her right shin in early June, delivered a solid, safe performance. Despite several glitches, it was good enough to finish fifth overall _ no small feat, considering this is her first Olympics.

"I wasn't really nervous at all," said Moceanu, who admitted only an occasional twinge in her bandaged shin. "My mindset was that it's not going to hurt because I had adrenaline going, excitement."

The United States had three gymnasts in the top 10 (Miller, Dominique Moceanu and Kerri Strug), but still trailed first-place Russia by .127 points. Romania was third, followed by Ukraine and then China, which finished second at the 1995 World Championships.

Miller, who won five medals in Barcelona, showed no signs of the wrist injury that kept her out of last month's Olympic trials, starting with a 9.775 on the uneven bars, adding a 9.787 on the floor and finishing with a 9.762 on the vault.

Sunday's scoring was not without controversy.

Romanian coaches claimed their team _ which has been reduced by injuries to six athletes _ was a victim of Rising Score Syndrome, inconsistent judging that sends scores up as the day and the rounds progress, even if the quality of competition doesn't deserve it.

The prime example: Lavinia Milosovici, the European champion and bronze medalist at the world championships last year, whose floor routine was going to be rewarded with a 9.737, according to a close-up camera shot on the scorer's computer.

But after a long wait for the score to be posted, Milosovici was given a 9.643. Romanian coach Octavian Belu said he was told that the head judge felt the other judges were scoring too high, so she knocked it down a notch.

"All the judges gave her higher than 9.7, 9.75," Belu said. "But (it was lowered) because the head judge said that was too much."

The head judge, American Audrey Schweyer, was was not immediately available for comment. Belu said he wanted to protest, but was told he could not.

DIXIE HATE MAIL: The U.S. team has hastily put together a new floor exercise for Amy Chow after a letter received Wednesday from an unidentified Southern woman complained the original music, Dixie, made the team appear bigoted. Chow, 18, isn't expected to perform in the optionals, but her coach, Diane Amos, decided to make the change anyway.