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U.S. gymnasts happy in 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-ever team gold medal. So giddy was the USA 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."

She also had instructions from Karolyi to take it easy on her takeoffs and landings. So she did, saving herself for Tuesday's optionals.

The United States had three gymnasts in the top 10 (Miller, Dominique Moceanu and Kerri Strug), but still trailed first-place Russia by .027 points. Romania was third, followed by Ukraine and then, in something of a shocker, China, which finished second at the 1995 World Championships.

Injuries have reduced Romania's team to six gymnasts, which means it can't afford a single mistake in the optionals. And while Russia is considered to have the most artistic team and the most technically intricate routines, it is said to suffer from a lapses in consistency.

Miller, who didn't score under 9.737 in any event, didn't seem impressed with her performance. "I think we trained really hard coming in," she said. "We're happy with our performance."

DIXIE HATE MAIL: The U.S. team has received a letter that strongly objects to the use of the song Dixie as part of Amy Chow's floor exercise routine. Chow's coach, Diane Amos, characterized the latter as "hate mail."

Amos said the letter, written by a woman from a Southern state, said the music made the U.S. team appear "bigoted." It was received in Atlanta Wednesday by U.S. team officials.

In response, Chow, 18, and her coaches rescripted the music and the choreography of her routine, making 11th-hour changes that could might endanger her chances of making the floor-exercise lineup for Tuesday night's optionals.

Kathy Kelly, director of the elite women's program for USA Gymnastics, said USAG president Kathy Scanlan would discuss the matter with Dr. LeRoy Walker, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

"We thought it was a good song," Kelly said. "We'd never have done anything about it ourselves."

"I personally thought it was a song about a soldier who loved his homeland," Amos said. "I thought it was a tribute to the South."