August 19, 2004 09:00 AM

The Olympics has a new golden boy: Paul Hamm, who on Wednesday night in Athens stumbled on the vault and fell into the judges’ table – then recovered by performing two of the best routines of his career and winning the men’s all-around gymnastics title by the closest Olympics margin ever.

“I’m happy right now. Shocked, actually,” said the 5’6″, 140-lb., freckle-faced 21-year-old from Wisconsin. “To be in first place after that kind of mistake, I thought there was no chance to win.”

Hamm (pronounced Hahm) and his identical twin, Morgan, were among this year’s most eligible bachelors in PEOPLE.

The winner first scored a 9.837 in the parallel bars, taking him from 12th to fourth place. He then needed a 9.825 on the high bar (his final event) to tie Kim Dae-eun of South Korea for gold.

Those in the Olympic Indoor Hall fell silent as Hamm threw himself up and over the bar, catching it on the way down once, twice and then a third time, soaring higher with each toss.

Even before the scores were posted, the crowd knew the gold belonged to Hamm – the first ever gold in that event to go to an American.

Hamm finished with 57.823 points, beating Kim by .012. The previous closest margin in the event was .017 by Leon Stukelj of Yugoslavia over Robert Prazak of Czechoslovakia in the 1924 Games. The women also had .012, in 1992, when Ukraine’s Tatyana Gutsu edged American Shannon Miller.

“I thought maybe I could get first,” Kim said. “I’m rather disappointed and angry, in a way.”

Yang Tae-young of South Korea took the bronze.

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