Larisa Semyonovna Latynina has won more Olympic medals for individual events than any athlete—male or female-in history.
Born Larisa Diriy in Kherson, Ukraine—a port along the coast of the Black Sea—on December 27, 1934, she dreamed of being a ballerina. In 1943, Larisa’s father was killed in the Battle of Stalingrad while helping to stop the German advance into the Soviet Union—a great humiliation for Hitler and a major turning point in favor of the Allies during World War II. Her mother worked two jobs in order to afford the monthly tuition of 50 Rubles for the ballet studio, which closed when the owner moved out of Kherson. At eleven, Larisa turned to gymnastics to fuel her energy and competitive drive. Five years later, she won a national schools gymnastics championship. After graduating high school in 1953, Larisa moved to Kiev, Ukraine’s capital city, to attend the Lenin Polytechnic Institute and train at the Burevestnik Voluntary Sports Society, where she worked with Alexander Mishakov, who also coached Boris Shakhlin, winner of 13 Olympic medals for the U.S.S.R. in men’s gymnastics.
At 19, Latynina debuted internationally at the 1954 Rome World Championships, earning a gold medal in the team competition. Two years later, she win six Olympic medals at the Summer Games in Melbourne, including four gold. After winning five golds at the 1957 European Championships, Larissa won five of six events at the 1958 World Championships—while four months pregnant with her first child. At the 1960 Rome Olympics, she claimed six more medals while defending her titles in floor exercise and all-around. Latynina earned four medals at the 1961 European Championships and six more at the World Championships in Prague one year later. She capped off her Olympic career at the 1964 Tokyo Games by winning gold medals in the team competition and floor event for the third time in a row while also capturing two silver and two bronze medals, bringing her career Olympic medal count to 18. After claiming five medals in the 1965 European Championships, Latynina retired following the World Championships in 1966. She was 31 years old, the mother of two children, and had won 46 medals in international competition over a span of 12 years.
Larisa Latynina won 14 individual Olympic medals, more than any athlete in history, and four team medals in three Olympic Games. She is one of four athletes to have won nine golds and is one of three women to win the same event in the Summer Games three times. Latynina is the only gymnast win medals on every event on the program in two separate Olympics and is one of two athletes to win the all-around–the most coveted prize in gymnastics–twice. Larisa revolutionized her sport, taking the floor exercise discipline to new heights of artistic agility. In her era, gymnastics was performed by women instead of girls. Ladies started in their late teens and continued into their late 20s. The sport was more elegant and less demanding. Latynina performed with a dancer’s posture and classic lines, with a beautiful and unwavering consistency to her routines. She was the first superstar in gymnastics, winning six medals in three consecutive Olympic Games. Mrs. Latynina coached the Soviet team to gold medals in the 1968, ’72 and ’76 Olympics and organized the gymnastics competition for the 1980 Games in Moscow. In 1989, Larisa Latynina received the Silver Olympic Order, the highest award of the Olympic movement, for “particularly distinguished contributions” and “recognition of efforts worthy of merit in the cause of sport.”
On July 31, 2012, Mrs. Latynina was at the Aquatics Centre in London when Michael Phelps surpassed her by winning his 19th Olympic medal. Larissa wanted to present Mr. Phelps with his medal but her request was denied by the International Olympic Committee.
“She was our first legend. When she stepped out on the floor, all eyes were on her. She demanded attention and respect.”– Bela Karolyi, legendary gymnastics coach