Nobuyuki Tsujii, 20, of Japan and Haochen Zhang, 19, of China shared the top prize, only the second time in the 47-year history of the competition that there have been dual winners. Tsujii also made history as the first blind pianist to win.
Yeol Eum Son, 23, of South Korea won the silver medal. All three won $20,000 and will record a CD, among other prizes.
After Tsujii's name was announced and his translator escorted him onto the stage, he wrapped his arms around Cliburn, grinning from ear to ear as the audience gave him a lengthy standing ovation, cheered and whistled.
Zhang later said he thought it was significant to be, along with Tsujii, the first from Asian countries to win the Cliburn and was "really happy" about it.
The other finalists this year, who each won $10,000, were Di Wu, 24, of China; Evgeni Bozhanov, 24, of Bulgaria; and Mariangela Vacatello, 27, of Italy. All six finalists received three years of managed concert tours, worth about $1 million.
The trend of more Cliburn competitors from Asian countries was noticeable in 2005 -- nearly a third of those competing. This year, almost half of the pianists who started the contest two weeks ago are from Asian countries.
Cliburn organizers and others say many in China, Japan and Korea view classical music from the West as prestigious, and it also is part of popular culture there.
Zhang, who turned 19 last week and was the youngest pianist in the competition, said he did not feel more pressure winning at his age.
"For a pianist my age there is nothing more challenging or stressful than the Cliburn competition, and if you're through with the competition then you feel more relaxed," said Zhang, who moved from China at age 15 to study at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music. He said with touring, "it's just the performance where you can share your music with the audience."
Tsujii, who was born blind and started playing the piano at age 2, memorizes music after listening to his teacher's recordings.
He had previously performed with orchestras, but in the Cliburn semifinals he had to perform with a chamber music quartet, which has no conductor, and had to figure out how to cue the other musicians. He got rave reviews for his Schumann piece that begins with all instruments playing simultaneously in the first movement.
Tsujii said he was happy about winning and didn't feel any challenges about touring.
"I want to give my deepest gratitude to the American audiences who have such a warm heart and gave me longlasting standing ovations. ... It made me so happy," Tsujii, who attends Ueno Gakuen University in Tokyo, said through a translator.
Son, who currently studies in Germany, said she was pleased to have a medal and was looking forward to touring in the U.S.
The competition is named for Van Cliburn, the acclaimed pianist from Fort Worth who gained prominence after winning the first Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow in 1958. The Cliburn contest, which started in 1962, is now held every four years. Cliburn himself is not one of the judges but presents the awards.
Olga Kern of Russia and Stanislav Ioudenitch of Uzbekistan shared the top prize in 2001.
A blind pianist competed at the 1973 Cliburn but didn't advance past the preliminary round.