The athletic world is in mourning this week after Vera Caslavska, a Czech gymnast who won seven gold medals before her public opposition to the Soviet invasion of her homeland ended her competitive career, passed away on Tuesday. She was 74 years-old.
The New York Times reported that the Czech Olympic Committee confirmed that she died after a lengthy illness. She had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a year and a half ago.
At the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Caslavska won gold medals in the vault, in the balance beam and in the all-around. She also led the Czech team to a silver medal in the team event, behind the Soviets.
Four years later, at the Mexico City games, Caslavska won gold medals in the vault, the all-around, floor exercise and uneven bars and silver medals in the balance beam and the team competition. She also shared the gold medal in the floor exercise with Larisa Petrik of the Soviet Union, who moved up from second place when Soviet judges revised their scores at the last minute.
During her career, Caslavska won 22 international titles between 1962 and 1968, with four world championships and 11 European championships titles in addition to her Olympic gold medals. To this day, she is the only gymnast, male or female, to have won an Olympic gold medal in each individual event.
“She was one of the most dominant gymnasts of her time, balanced in all the events and completely comparable to someone like Simone Biles,” Bart Conner, an Olympic gold medalist in 1984.
He added that Caslavska “was one of the first to introduce a strong, acrobatic, athletic style to gymnastics, which previously had been more dance-oriented.”
When the Soviet national anthem was played for Petrik during the 1968 Olympic games, Caslavska lowered her head and looked away in an act of defiance that would destroy her career.
“We all tried harder to win in Mexico because it would turn the eyes of the world on our unfortunate country,” she said afterwards.
Rest in peace, Vera Caslavska!