Five-Ring Circus

In Praise of Larisa Latynina: Michael Phelps’ Olympic Equal, Pregnant Gymnastics World Champion

Soviet Larisa Latynina performs her routine on the beam during the Olympic Games in Melbourne in December 1956.

Photo by AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Michael Phelps won his 14th medal in an individual Olympic event, tying the longstanding record held by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina. Since Phelps has two individual events left to swim in Rio, it’s highly probable that Latynina’s tenure as the individual-medals record holder has mere hours left to live.

And that’s not such a sad thing, right? After all, Latynina, now 81, racked up all that hardware in the 1950s and ’60s, when the women’s all-around looked nothing like an explosive Simone Biles experience and everything like a group of reasonably spry civilians goofing around at the gym. I mean, just check out Latynina’s moves at the world championships in 1958.

You probably have a colleague who could do about the same after a really invigorating barre class and a glass of wine, right?

OK. But what if I told you that Latynina nearly swept the ’58 worlds while four months pregnant? Let’s watch again with new eyes.

Yup, that’s right. She’s doing damn Prince splits in the second trimester while keeping her pregnancy secret from everyone, including her coaches. Flying around whilst under fetal occupation. (Incidentally, I am four months pregnant right now, and I am so inspired by this footage that I might just ride my bike to work tomorrow.) Latynina’s benchmark for expectant-athlete badassery would stand unchallenged for 56 years—until 2014, when Alysia Montano ran the 800 meters in the U.S. track and field championships when almost full-term.

Latynina helped lead the crushingly dominant Soviet women’s gymnastics team in the 1956, 1960, and 1964 Olympics, taking home individual golds for herself in all three games. Video of her floor exercise at the 1964 Tokyo Games is soothing and faintly hypnotic, as if the rotating dancer in a child’s music box had been set free, made self-aware, and perhaps lightly dosed with some Vicodin.

She continued her gold rush through the 1968, 1972, and 1976 Olympics, then as the coach of the Soviet national team. After the Montreal Games, however, she came under intense criticism from Soviet officials for returning with “only” three gold medals, including one for the team all-around. Those were the Olympics in which Romania’s Nadia Comaneci floated above her competition, becoming the first gymnast to earn a perfect 10 in any Olympic event. “In three Olympics, the girls I worked with won 10 gold medals … but rumors did reach me,” Latynina told an interviewer in 2004. “Rude people said, ‘Latynina has gotten old, her methods are no longer modern, she preaches femininity and beauty.’ ” The only thing she could think to say to her critics? “Well, it’s not my fault that Nadia Comaneci wasn’t born in the Soviet Union.”

Thing is, though, Comaneci has a measly seven individual medals to her name—half of Latynina’s count. And Nadia never won the all-around in the world championships, pregnant or otherwise. So congratulations on a long-standing and well-deserved record, Larisa Latynina. You were a star in gymnastics’ early days, and you would’ve been a star in the modern age. And your secret magic acrobatic baby? If she had been born this year, she would have been huge on Instagram.

See more of Slate’s Olympics coverage.