LONDON – For nearly half a century, Larisa Latynina was the world’s most decorated Olympian – through the years of Soviet sports supremacy and decline, and the drastic evolution of her sport of gymnastics.
Now that she has been surpassed by American swimmer Michael Phelps, she doesn’t look on in bitterness. In fact, she says she “could only be happy to see that there is such a talented athlete who was able to break the record.”
What’s more, the 77-year-old woman with the still-dazzling smile was in the stands of the Aquatics Centre on Tuesday night to witness Phelps win his 19th medal and see her record fall.
“I saw him swim, and I saw my record swim away,” she told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
While competing for the Soviet Union at the 1956, 1960 and 1964 Olympics, Latynina won 18 medals – something that even such storied gymnasts as Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci haven’t done.
Latynina’s fame peaked at a time when television in the Soviet Union was practically nonexistent. Although she is revered and respected throughout the gymnastics community at home and abroad, she is not as visible as Comaneci and younger gymnasts.
Latynina came from a background in ballet, raised by a single mother amid World War II because her father was killed in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943 when she was nine. Her mother swept floors, washed dishes and worked as a night guard to pay for her dance classes in her hometown of Kherson, on the Black Sea, while Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. But Latynina had to give up ballet when her teacher left town, and she turned instead to gymnastics.
In Phelps, who is 50 years younger than she, Latynina said she sees “a strong, capable sportsman who has taken the record.”
And she has a wish for him.
“That he doesn’t look back into the past at his records, but remains a normal, good, kind person. Because that’s the most important thing in life,” she said.