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Now that Michael Phelps has ended his Olympic career with a mind-boggling 22 medals (18 gold), I'd like to introduce you to the 77-year old previous holder of the "Most Decorated Olympic Athlete." For 48 years, Larisa Latynina (a former Soviet gymnast) held the record of 18 Olympic medals (9 Gold, 5 Silver and 4 Bronze), which until last week seemed untouchable.
Larisa was born in Kherson, a Black Sea port in Southern Ukraine in 1934 (just one year after the Holodomor Famine), and her father left the family when she was only eleven months old. When she was nine, he died in the Battle of Stalingrad (1: No Paternal Safety Net).
Her childhood was difficult, because resistance to Stalin's "collective farming" resulted in widespread famine. Athletic success was one of the few avenues to a better life, and her mother worked hard at two jobs to support them and pay for hours of her training (12: Hard Times).
Latynina began studying ballet as a twelve year old, but when the dance studio closed she became an athlete (2: An Early Sense Of Direction). In order to make the transition from ballet to gymnastics, Latynina had to move to Kiev as a young girl in order to receive specialized training that was not available near her home (14: Selective Disassociation).
Her dancer's grace and elegance (she was 5 foot 3 inches, and weighed 115 pounds) allowed her to compete (and win) in three separate Olympic competitions--Melbourne/1956; Rome/1960; and Tokyo/1964. Today, many gymnasts retire at the age of only 18, but Larisa attended her first Olympics when she was 21 years old. Unlike today's teen aged gymnasts, Latynina competed until she was two months away from her 30th birthday.
The sport was so important to her that at the 1958 World Competition she managed to win even though (unbeknownst to anyone else) she was four months pregnant. By the time she was in her early 30's, she became the chief coach of the Soviet National Artistic gymnastics team, and under her guidance they won team gold in 1968, 1972 and 1976 (7: Magnificent Obsession).
Before she competed in Melbourne, she debuted internationally at the 1954 World Championships when she was a 19 year old. She finished 14th, and following her coach's advice, worked tirelessly to improve her self-control, calm her nerves and contain her excitement. Soon she was able to overcome any mistake made during a performance. In her words, "I can't say i was so much better then the others...I think I was a bit more focused, more composed, probably had a bit more desire and [more of] a will to win than the others." (10: The Critic Within).
In 1976, Latynina was criticized by the Soviet Sports Ministry because Nadia Comaneci defeated two Soviet gymnasts for the all around gold medal. The officials felt that it was Larisa's fault (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest).
In 1992, an honor was created by the World Sports Award of the Century for the "Greatest gymnast of the 20th century," but instead of going to Latynina it was given to Nadia Comaneci. The veteran gymnast, Larisa, had won nine Olympic gold medals while Nadia only had four, but the Romanian had (in 1976) become the first gymnast to ever score a perfect ten. Latynina was deeply disappointed, but at the 2012 Olympics her picture is at the top of a list of biggest medal winners of all time while, in her words, "See, there is no Comaneci there" (8: Turning No Into Yes).
Rumor has it that she has been divorced three times (15: Forget About Prince Charming), but there is nodenying that she and her daughter, Tatyana, have an exceptionally close relationship (16: Intensive Motherhood). Two years ago, Tatyana and her Russian millionaire husband moved to Sevenoaks, Kent (east of London), and Larisa conducted many of her 2012 Olympic interviews in their mansion.
She congratulated Phelps on his victory, and joked that "forty eight years is almost enough time to hold a record...it's time for a man to be able to do what a woman did long ago."