She was born as Larisa Semyonovna Diriy in Soviet Ukraine. Her father, Semyon Andreyevich Diriy, left the family when she was 11 months old, and she was raised by her illiterate mother, Polina, who worked as a cleaner during the day, and as a watchman during the night. Her father was killed at the Battle of Stalingrad, where he served as a machine gun operator. She first practiced ballet, but turned to gymnastics after her choreographer moved out of Kherson. She graduated from high school in 1953, and moved to Kiev. She attended the Lenin Polytechnic Institute, and continued her training at the Burevestnik Voluntary Sports Society. At the age of 19, she debuted internationally at the 1954 Rome World Championships, winning the gold medal in the team competition.
At the 1956 Summer Olympics, she competed with Ágnes Keleti of Hungary to become the most successful gymnast of the Olympics. Latynina beat Keleti in the all-around event, and the Soviet team also won the team event. In the event finals, Latynina won gold medals on the floor (shared with Keleti) and vault, a silver medal on the uneven bars, and a bronze medal in the now discontinued team event with portable apparatus. Keleti also won six medals: four golds and two silvers.
After a very successful World Championships in 1958 (winning five out of six titles despite competing whilst four months pregnant), Latynina was the favorite for the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. In the all-around event she led the Soviet Union to take the first four places, thereby also securing a win in the team competition by a margin of nine points. Latynina defended her floor title, took silver medals in the balance beam and uneven bars events, and bronze in the vault competition.
Latynina won all-around titles at the 1962 World Championships, beating Věra Čáslavská of Czechoslovakia. Still the defending World Champion at the 1964 Summer Olympics, she was beaten by Čáslavská in the all-around competition. Latynina added two more gold medals to her tally, winning the team event and the floor event both for the third time in a row. A silver medal and two bronzes in the other apparatus events brought her total of Olympic medals to eighteen—nine gold medals, five silver and four bronze. She won a medal in every event in which she competed, except for the 1956 balance beam where she came in fourth.
Latynina's nine gold medals makes her second on the list of most Olympic gold medalists together with Paavo Nurmi, Mark Spitz, and Carl Lewis, only behind Michael Phelps, who has 23. She held the distinction of having more Olympic medals (either individually or with a team) than anybody, from 1964 until 2012. She is the only woman to have won nine gold medals. She is also the only female athlete who at some point has held the record for most Olympic gold medals. Additionally, within the sport of gymnastics, she is the only woman who has won an all-around medal in more than two Olympiads, the only woman who has won an individual event (floor exercise) in more than two Olympiads, and one of only three women who have won every individual event at either the World Championship or Olympic level. She is one of only two female gymnasts (Simone Biles; 2016) to have won team gold, all-around gold and an event final gold at the same Olympics, having done so twice, in 1956 and four years later, in 1960.
She was born to Pelageya Anisimovna Barabamyuk (1902–1975) and Semyon Andreevich Diriy (1906–1943), who died in the Battle of Stalingrad. Larisa was married three times. Her last and current husband is Yuri Izrailovich Feldman (b. 1938), a member of the Russian Academy of Electrotechnical Sciences and a former competitive cyclist. Her daughter from a former marriage, Tatyana Ivanovna Latynina (b. 1958), is a folk dancer. She was born only five months after her mother won a world all-around title, and seven months after her birth Latynina competed at the national championships. Latynina kept her pregnancy a secret, even from her coach. She also had a son.
Latynina retired after the 1966 World Championships and became a coach for the Soviet national gymnastics team, a position she held until 1977. Under her coaching the Soviet women won team gold in the 1968, 1972 and 1976 Olympics. She organized the gymnastics competition at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.
She is a citizen of Russia, and lives in an estate near the town of Semenovskoye.
1989: Olympic Order (silver), International Olympic Committee
1998: Inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame