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Larisa Latynina: Accomplished, Womanly, and History's Best Gymnast

19. December 2012 by Lorena 0 Comments

Most people, when asked who was the greatest female gymnast of the 20th century, would respond Nadia Comaneci. However, there is another gymnast, one lesser known, who has a record Comaneci couldn’t touch. In fact, until Michael Phelps beat her record this year, Larisa Latynina had won more Olympic medals than any athlete in modern history. Competing for the Soviet Union, Larisa Latynina won 18 Olympic medals in gymnastics.


Soviet Union gymnasts, particularly those from Russia and Ukraine, dominated at the Olympics for many years. Had she been born somewhere else, Ms. Latynina might have become a ballerina instead. She studied ballet as a child, but turned to gymnastics when her trainer moved away. Longtime fans of the sport say that Ms. Latynina’s style, shape and performance harken back to a different age in gymnastics. While competitive gymnasts seem to get younger and smaller every year, in Ms. Latynina’s time, they sometimes competed into their thirties and had womanly figures. Ms. Latynina did not make her international debut until she was 19, and did not compete in the Olympics for the first time until she was 21.


In 1956, Larisa Latynina helped win a team gold medal for the Soviet Union and also won several individual medals. In 1958 at the World Championships, she won five out of her six events. Only after the competition did she reveal that she was four months pregnant at the time. She said that, had she told even her coaches, they would not have let her compete. She returned to the Olympics in 1964, and came home with two gold medals, a silver and two bronze ones.


Ms. Latynina retired after the 1966 World Championships and began coaching. She was coach of the Soviet national gymnastics team until 1977, when Ms. Latynina says that she was fired because of Nadia Comaneci’s dominance at the 1976 Olympics. According to The New York Times, Ms. Latynina said of the incident, “I don’t know why I should be blamed that Nadia was born in Romania, not Russia”


Even though Michael Phelps surpassed her record for total medals, her record for individual medals still stands. And, with him retired from competition, it is likely that Ms. Latynina will remain the world’s most prolific individual medal winner for some time.

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