Former Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina, seen here in 2010, currently holds the record for most medals won in modern Olympic history. (AP)

Former Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina, seen here in 2010, currently holds the record for most medals won in modern Olympic history. (AP)

U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps can’t match the eight Olympic gold medals he won in Beijing during these games, but he stands an excellent chance of breaking the record for most total Olympic medals.

The record-holder was a gymnast.  She’s still alive, and yet, you’ve probably never heard of her. Larisa Latynina won a total of 18 medals while representing the Soviet Union in three Olympics.

Sports Illustrated’s Nick Zaccardi and Gennady Fyodorov co-wrote an article about Latynina for SI.com.  Zaccardi joined Bill Littlefield this week to talk about the most decorated Olympian.

Latynina competed in the Games in 1956, 1960 and 1964, but before she was a gymnast, she was a ballet dancer. “At the time, gymnastics wasn’t as athletic and filled with high-flying moves as it is today,” Zaccardi said. “So it was a very easy transition for Larisa.”

Of her 18 medals, nine were gold, but how dominant was Latynina? That was the question Zaccardi wanted to answer in his reporting.

“She was definitely known as the best of her era,” he said. “The whole Soviet team at the time was just a level above everyone else, and she was the leader of the team at the time.”

After retiring from competition, Latynina coached for the Soviet Union for more than a decade. Many former gymnasts remain household names: Olga Korbut, Nadia Comeneci, Mary Lou Retton and Shannon Miller, for instance. With such a prominent career, how did Latynina’s name get lost outside of the former Soviet Union?

“She competed before television coverage was big at the Olympics,” Zaccardi said. “She was kind of the precursor to Nadia Comaneci and Olga Korbut, where there was that television presence. It was the wrong time for her to get international notoriety.”