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At the tender age of 17 Lilia Podkopayeva was already a seasoned international star. The Ukrainian had taken up gymnastics at the age of five and was quickly earmarked as one of the most talented children in what was then the Soviet Union. By the time she made her international debut, in 1993, Podkopayeva was competing for the newly independent Ukraine, and her first medal came a year later when she was still just 15 – a silver in the balance beam at the 1994 World Championships.
Later the same year she added a gold medal at the European Championships as she produced a superb display in the floor exercise. She underlined her versatility at the Worlds the following year, when she won the all-around title, as well as the vault, to go with silvers in two other routines.
Podkopayeva stood only 1.5m tall, and many were now starting to compare her with the great Nadia Comăneci. The Romanian was the last gymnast to win both the Olympic all-around title and an individual gold. Could the diminutive Ukrainian match that feat?
First, she had to recover from a nasty injury sustained in training early in 1996, an setback that would surely have jeopardised her place at the Games if it had happened any later in the year. As it was, Podkopayeva arrived in Atlanta well rested, although still grieving after the death of her grandmother, who had first introduced her to gymnastics.
The all-around competition at the 1996 Games turned out to be fierce. With just one rotation remaining, six athletes were still in contention for the gold. Podkopayeva lay in third place, but she was yet to perform on the floor, one of her strongest suits. With the pressure at its greatest, she managed to produce an inspired display.
Podkopayeva scored 9.887, the highest score recorded by any gymnast on any piece of apparatus. It was enough to secure her the floor exercise gold, and also the all-around title – and in so doing she matched the feat of Comăneci.
It was to be Podkopayeva’s only appearance at the Olympic Games. Injuries resulted in her early retirement, but she remains a familiar face in the gymnastics world, having gone on to work as both a judge and coach. She is also a popular television celebrity in Ukraine, and a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations.