At the 1958 World Championships Larissa Latynina dominated the field. She won five gold medals as well as a silver medal on floor. Statistically, it is one of the greatest performances in gymnastics history. It could even be argued that it is the single greatest performance in the entire history of the World Championships.
In Data Crunch #4.5 Latyina-1958 tops the list as the most dominant medal haul with a 14-point tally. In Data Crunch #2.5 Latynina-1958 had the highest margin of victory of any World Championships in the 1952-2005 Perfect-10 scoring era. It wasn’t until 2018 or perhaps even 2019 that Simone Biles produced a result total that truly challenges Latynina’s claim to having the most dominant performance in World Championships history.
But the most impressive part about this story, Latynina did all of that while four months pregnant.
In 2012 Michael Phelps broke Latynina’s record of 18 career Olympic medals. Latynina may have lost her status as the most decorated Olympian, but she gained something else. Michael Phelps’ success renewed interest in Latynina’s story. Latynina received more media coverage in the Western press in 2012 than at any other point in her career. Among the stories written about her, a New York Times article where she discussed competing while pregnant at the 1958 World Championships.
Among the revelations, Latynina had informed only the team doctor that she was pregnant while keeping it a secret from Soviet coaches.
“I couldn’t say anything because they wouldn’t have allowed me to participate.”
Among Latynina’s many talents, she is a master of witty remarks. In response to Phelps surpassing her record Latynina said:
Forty-eight years is almost enough time to hold a record.
But her greatest quip from the 2012 Olympics was recorded by Time Magazine.
I’m quite happy there is a man in the world who can overcome my record, finally.
At first glance the quip sounds hilarious, but there is a deeper meaning to it. After completing a successful gymnastics career as an athlete, Latynina took up coaching. Latynina had one of the most successful tenures of any national team coach in the history of Soviet women’s gymnastics. The team Latynina selected for the 1976 Olympics remains one of the strongest performing teams of all time.
But that didn’t matter. Nadia Comaneci had emerged as the new gymnastics star and Latynina’s inability to produce a gymnast capable of rivaling the Romanian superstar proved to be Latynina’s downfall. It was essentially an unattainable performance requirement used to justify the ousting of a well performing coach. And yes, Latynina’s legendary quips go all the way back to the 1970s.
I don’t know why I should be blamed that Nadia was born in Romania, not Russia.
Latynina became the victim of a trend that simultaneously occurred in both American and Soviet sports during the 1970s/1980s. When opportunity for female athletes improves, it correlates with a decline in opportunity for female coaches. The reason being, male coaches ignore coaching roles in women’s sport when said sports lack funding and prestige. But those same coaching roles become more attractive to male coaches when prestige and funding increases.
But Latynina isn’t the type to highlight the injustices she faced during her career. Instead Latyina remains a supporter of Russian athletics. She can frequently be seen conducting media interviews and attending sporting events. Latynina also has a family. Among her family members is a daughter who appears to have inherited her mother’s wit. Tatiana Latynina said the following about the 1958 World Championships medals that are now a family heirloom.
“I consider them mine…we won them together.”