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Russian who lost record to Phelps wishes him well

Wednesday - 8/1/2012, 4:59pm  ET

By NANCY ARMOUR and NATALIYA VASILYEVA
Associated Press

LONDON (AP) - 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.

"Forty-eight years! That's a very long time!" Latynina said Wednesday, still marveling at how long the record stood.

Latynina competed in an era when gymnastics was more about femininity and maturity, rather than teenage acrobatics, which has dominated the sport for decades.

It's not unusual for gymnasts today to retire at 18, while Latynina made her debut in international competition at the age of 19. She was four months pregnant with her daughter Tatyana while competing at the world championships in 1958.

Latynina won her last medal at the Tokyo Games in 1964 when she was nearly 30 _ unusually old for gymnasts.

Comaneci, who is described as the best female gymnast in history, retired in 1981 when she was 20 with nine Olympic medals, five of them gold.

"We knew about her because we are in the same sport, and you always pay attention to the history," Comaneci said in an interview. "We grew up watching _ I didn't compete with her, but I watched her performances."

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.

Comaneci said Latynina was determined "to be the best," although gymnastics was a very different sport in that era.

"They were actually ladies competing in gymnastics. And you look back at the equipment, it was different then," Comaneci said. "I don't want to say primitive, but that's what it was. The beam was wood, it was not very good for your heels."

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 9. She told state-owned Rossiya TV n 2010 that 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.

Because Latynina's success was so long ago, people outside the sport may have forgotten what she accomplished.

"This is the first time people worldwide are acknowledging her in such a wonderful way for what she's done," Comaneci said. "People tend to forget things. Eighteen medals _ that's a lot."

Latynina still owns several records and is the only woman to have won nine Olympic golds.

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko told the news agency R-Sport that Latynina "will still remain one of the greatest athletes in history."

In Phelps, who is 50 years younger than she, Latynina said she sees "a strong, capable sportsman who has taken that 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.

___

Vasilyeva reported from Moscow.


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)