Lilia Podkopayeva

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Lilia Alexandrivna Podkopayeva (Ukrainian: Лілія Олександрівна Подкопаєва; Russian: Лилия Александровна Подкопаева (Liliya Aleksandrovna Podkopaeva); born August 15, 1978 in Donetsk) is a retired Ukrainian gymnast who became the 1996 Olympic all-around champion. She is widely regarded as one of the best gymnasts in history.

Podkoypayeva was often referred to as the "complete package" gymnast, possessing equal qualities of technical skill and artistic expression. Her routines were known for their melding of balletic, expressive choreography, clean execution, impeccable form and extremely difficult skills. In addition, Podkopayeva was known for being strong on all four apparatus, without an obvious weak event. She was the originator of two skills that are still included in the Code of Points: the Podkopayeva vault and a double front half-out salto on the floor exercise.

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Gymnastics career

Podkopayeva was introduced to gymnastics at the age of five by her grandmother. As a junior, before the breakup of the Soviet Union, she briefly trained at the Soviets' renowned Round Lake gymnastics facility. At the 1996 Olympics, Russian (and former Soviet) head coach Leonid Arkaev noted that Podkopayeva was the gymnast with whom he most missed working. In Ukraine, Podkopayeva trained at the National Training Center in Kiev under the tutelage of former European, World and Olympic gold medalist Ludmilla Tourischeva.

Podkopayeva made her senior international debut in 1993. Only 14 at that year's World Championships, she placed 16th in the all-around. She qualified for the vault final, but crashed on her first attempt and finished last.

In 1994, Podkopayeva's competitive fortunes improved immensely. At the 1994 World Championships, she finished sixth in the all-around — a ten place improvement from the previous year—and won a silver medal on the balance beam. At the European Championships, she earned four medals, winning floor exercise, silver on the beam, and winning bronze in the vault and team events. She also qualified for the all-around and the uneven bars final, where she placed fifth and sixth, respectively. Podkopayeva also did well at the Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg, where she won the vault title, placed 4th in the all-around, won a silver medal with the Ukrainian team and a second silver on floor.

Podkpopayeva competed in the 1995 World Championships with a new set of routines and an optimum physical condition. Due to her past inconsistencies, she was widely considered to be an underdog. However, while other more decorated gymnasts faltered, Podkopayeva had the meet of her life, winning the all-around title. She beat Svetlana Khorkina of Russia and Lavinia Miloşovici of Romania, who finished second and third respectively. In the event finals, Lilia excelled again, taking another gold medal on the vault and silvers on the uneven bars and the beam. Her contributions in the team competition also helped the Ukrainians to a fifth-place finish, allowing them to qualify a full team to the 1996 Olympic Games.

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