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Published Sep. 16, 2005

Lilia Podkopayeva cried tears of joy. The Americans just cried.

Podkopayeva's stunning floor routine gave her a 9.887 _ the highest score of the Olympics _ and the all-around gold. It was on that same floor that Shannon Miller and Dominique Dawes tearily watched their medal hopes slip away.

Two days after helping the United States to the team gold, Miller finished eighth; Dominique Moceanu, who replaced Tuesday night's star, Kerri Strug, was ninth and Dawes finished in a tie for 17th with Monica Martin of Spain.

"I tried my hardest tonight," Miller said, breaking down as she spoke. "We won the gold and were so excited, we lost focus. It's hard."

It was a sweet night for Podkopayeva, who came into the final round tied for first with China's Mo Huilan. Podkopayeva got the crowd clapping as she tumbled and twirled to an Irish jig.

As her score flashed, the reigning world champion closed her eyes and clasped her hands together as if in prayer. Mo was the last to go, and when she stepped out of bounds on her floor routine, Podkopayeva burst into tears.

"I'm very happy the floor was last, because I could reach my full potential," she said.

She teared up again as the gold medal was placed around her neck, then kissed it twice as she waved her bouquet of flowers to the crowd.

The 17-year-old from Ukraine became the first reigning world champion to win the Olympic women's all-around since the legendary Ludmilla Tourischeva of the Soviet Union did it in 1972 in Munich, Germany. Tourischeva is a mentor to Podkopayeva.

Shortly after the music stopped, Podkopayeva was locked in an embrace with her good friend Yelena Piskun, who now competes for Belarus and, like Podkopayeva, is a former Soviet.

"I did feel some responsibility as the champion of the world and champion of Europe to perform well," said Podkopayeva, who is known in gymnastics circles as "Lili Pod."

Podkopayeva is known for her muscle, her powerful tumbling ability and the high degree of difficulty in her routines. Her floor exercise includes a maneuver no other female gymnast does _ a double front somersault with a half turn.

"She is not the most graceful, but she's very strong, like another Mary Lou (Retton)," said Bela Karolyi, coach of Moceanu and Strug.

Gina Gogean of Romania won the silver, and the bronze was shared by her teammates, Simona Amanar and Lavinia Milosovici. Milosovici also won the bronze in Barcelona. Mo finished fifth.

Amanar's bronze was the more remarkable because she had not even been in the Romanian lineup 24 hours earlier.

After finishing with the fourth-best Romanian score during the team competition, she should have been sitting on the sideline (only three gymnasts from each nation qualify for the all-around). But after insisting he would not do it, Romanian coach Octavian Belu succumbed to temptation and replaced his third-place gymnast, Alexandra Marinescu, with Amanar, who had been brilliant in team optionals.

Moceanu's night was over almost as soon as it began. She nearly slipped off the beam. On her next routine, the floor exercise, she ended her first tumbling pass with her right foot out of bounds.