(CNN) -- Larysa Latynina holds more Olympic medals than any other competitor, male or female, in any sport and was responsible for establishing the Soviet Union as the dominant force in gymnastics.
Latynina was the first great gymnast of the sport's modern era.
Between 1956 in Melbourne and 1964 in Tokyo, Latynina collected a record tally of 18 medals, including nine golds. Her total of 14 medals in individual events is also an Olympic record.
Graceful and stylish, Latynina revolutionized her sport, which had only been introduced in its modern format in 1952.
Her fluid movements took the floor exercises discipline, in which she won three of her golds, to new heights of artistic agility.
Yet Latynina's success, and her extraordinary longevity in a discipline that has become a byword for teenage burnout, was principally due to a Stakhanovite dedication forged by her early experiences growing up in the Ukraine during the famine of the 1930s and World War II.
"I learned a very great truth in my difficult childhood," said Latynina, an obsessive perfectionist.
"Good never comes on a silver platter, while talent is primarily perseverance and hard work."
Latynina took up ballet at the age of 11, progressing to gymnastics during her teens, but she didn't make her international debut until the world championships in 1954, finishing a lackluster 14th.
Self-improvement Far from demoralized, she embarked on an austere program of self-improvement that would transform her, two years later, into the greatest gymnast in the world.
In Melbourne, she finished first in the all-round event, in the floor exercises and on the vault and also led the Soviet Union to gold in the team event. She also won on the uneven bars.
Four years later in Rome she retained her all-round and floor exercises titles and again picked up a team gold, collecting silver on the uneven bars and on the balance beam.
She claimed her third floor exercises gold in Tokyo in 1964, along with another team title, but lost her all-round title to rising Czech star Vera Caslavska, who was almost eight years her junior.
Latynina's career played out in parallel with her Ukrainian rival Polina Astakhova, a five-time gold medallist, with the pair driving each other to greater heights of achievement.
Latynina retired in 1966, but her influence on Soviet gymnastics continued in a coaching role until 1977.
She was awarded the Olympic Order -- the IOC's highest honor -- in 1989.