LONDON — For almost a half-century, her grip was as cold and unyielding as her homeland itself.
Other gymnasts would come, and other gymnasts would go, and other gymnasts would become richer and more famous. But the record for most medals? That was hers. If someone else wanted it, they were going to rip it from her fingers.
Now, Larisa Latynina is 77, and yes, she is willing to hand it over to Michael Phelps.
This is the face on the record, sweet and grandmotherly. She laughs loudly, and she smiles widely, and she enjoys the little digs she makes at the expense of other gymnasts.
As she speaks in a corridor of the North Greenwich Arena draped in — what else? — a Russian Olympic warmup jacket, you can hear flashes of the competitiveness that made her one of the finest gymnasts in history.
This time, however, there is nothing more to fight. She seems happy about the prospect of Phelps breaking her record, if for no other reason that to remind everyone that she held the record for 48 years. "I am quite happy there is a man in the world who can overcome my records, she said. "Finally."
Eighteen Olympic medals she won. Over three Olympics she raked in her medals, and she stacked them like poker chips. Even in the sports where medal hauls are possible — gymnastics and fencing and swimming and track — no one has been able to chase her down.
With the possibility of swimming in two finals tonight, Phelps could pass Latynina. He has 17 medals, which means that one top-three finish ties her and another passes her in total medals. (Phelps has 14 golds to Latynina's nine.).
Again, that's fine with Latynina, who met Phelps in March in New York. "He made a very good impression," said Latynina, speaking through an interpreter. "He's very human, smiling, humorous and, from what I see, very talented." In other words, she says, Phelps would make a splendid Russian.
Does that make Phelps the greatest Olympian of them all? It certainly bolsters the argument. Some of us, of course, pronounced Phelps as the greatest four years ago. Still, the debate is deeper than number of medals. For instance, Cuban boxer Teofilo Stevenson was one of the most dominant Olympians of all, winning three heavyweight golds, but he competed in a sport where he could win only one gold every four years.
So rank them the way you wish. But, um, you might be careful mentioning Nadia Comaneci around Latynina. When Comaneci's name comes up, Latynina's voice gets a little louder and a little faster, and her annoyance doesn't need translating. In 2000, Comaneci was named gymnast of the century. Latynina's view? What is Russian for "ticked off"?
"Openly talking, I felt sad about it," she said. "Nadia has a very good p.r. company."
Okay. So who is the greatest gymnast of all time?
Latynina smiles again.
"In gymnastics, the biggest event is to win the all-around," she said. "In the whole history of the Olympics, only two gymnasts have done that (in back-to-back Olympics), myself and Vera Caslavska (of then-Czechoslovakia). So you can choose between us two."
Caslavska, by the way, won 11 total medals. Edge: Latynina.
Also, there is this: What other gymnast has won a world championship medal while pregnant.
It was back in 1958, and Latynina was 23. She feared she would not be allowed to compete, so she told no one but her doctor, who guaranteed she would be fine. She was. She won five of six possible golds.
When her daughter Tatiana was a child, Tatiana once pointed to those medals and told a visitor: "Those are the medals my mother and I won together."
These days, Tatiana is married to a billionaire. Life has been easier for her than her mother, who lost both parents by the time she was 12. "We ate badly," Latynina said. "We dressed badly."
The world was different when Latynina competed. Her Olympics ran from 1956 to 1964, right through the Gary Francis Powers and the Cuban missile crisis and Khrushchev pounding his shoe. Back then, Russian athletes were often depicted as cold and unfeeling beings from a way of life different from ours.
Latynina doesn't remember it like that. She remembers friendly competition; she gave Phelps one of her medals from a lesser competition because it had the American and Russian flags on it.
Perhaps if not for the Cold War, more people would remember Latynina now. Perhaps they would if Russian TV had not start broadcasting the Games until 1968. Perhaps if Olga Korbut and Comaneci hadn't been so dazzling.
In what could be her final hours as the Olympics' greatest medalist, perhaps this is the time to appreciate Latynina once again. She was dazzling, she was fierce, and she was successful.
In the end, it only took 48 years to run her down.