Larisa Latynina, the Russian gymnast who was the Olympian for Michael Phelps to beat this year, was so passionate about her sport–and competing for a medal–that she did it while four months pregnant.
Latynina, a former ballerina, was forced to give up dance at the age of twelve when her dance studio closed down. She’d only been dancing for a year, but there was something about the clean, graceful lines of a dancer that attracted a girl who came from modest means during the time of Hitler’s reign. She decided if she couldn’t dance, she would become an athlete instead.
But she got into the game rather late by today’s standards; by the 1956 Olympics, she was already 22 years old. She took the sports world by storm that year anyway, earning seven medals, and went on to compete in the 1958 world championships even though she was four months pregnant with her daughter, Tatyana. Although she had to keep her pregnancy a secret, she was determined to win, and went home with five gold medals.
“I consider them mine,” Tatyana has said. “We won them together.”
Latynina went on to win six more medals in the 1964 Olympics, rounding out her wins to 18, which made her the most decorated Olympian in history. And for almost 50 years, she’s held that title, relinquishing it only to Phelps when he took his 19th this week. And Latynina, who is now in her late 70’s, has accepted it all with her classic grace and humor, saying it’s about time a man stepped up to do what a woman did before him.
The Olympian retired after the 1966 world championships and went on to coach the Soviet national team until 1977. She is still considered an icon in the gymnastics world, credited with bringing the spotlight to Soviet athletes.
“Among women, I’m sure I will stay No. 1 for a long time,” she said.