Olympic legend Věra Čáslavská passed away on Tuesday, August 30, after a lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 74.
Born in Prague in 1942, Čáslavská was originally a figure skater who transitioned to gymnastics, making her international debut at the age of 16 at the 1958 World Championships. She would go on to win 22 international titles.
At 18, she participated in her first Olympic games in Rome, winning a silver medal with the Czechoslovak team.
Čáslavská dominated the 1964 games in Tokyo and 1968 games in Mexico City, winning a total of ten medals including golds in the all-around competition at both games.
With a total of seven gold medals, Čáslavská is among the most-decorated gymnasts in Olympic history; she’s held more individual event titles than any other Olympic gymnast, and is the only gymnast to ever win gold in every individual event.
She also holds the record for most individual gold medals among all female athletes in Olympic history.
But Čáslavská was not only celebrated for her athletic prowess.
A vocal opponent of communism and the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovkia, at the 1968 games in Mexico she held a quiet protest, looking down and away during the playing of the Soviet anthem.
Her subtle acts of protest were revered by both compatriots back home and a global audience, but cost Čáslavská dearly upon returning home. Following those games, she was forced to retire and denied the ability to work, travel, or even attend sporting events by Soviet authorities.
Only in the late 1980s, following pressure from the International Olympic Committee, was she allowed to return to work as a gymnastics coach.
Čáslavská’s death from pancreatic cancer comes after a lengthy battle that included an eight-hour operation in May and rounds of chemotherapy that left her unable to travel to this year’s Olympic games in Rio.
Journalist and author Pavel Kosatík first shared news of Čáslavská’s passing via his Facebook page; it was later confirmed by director Olga Sommerová for Czech Radio.
In 2012, Sommerová released the well-received documentary Věra 68 about the star gymnast and her battles both on and off the gymnastics floor.
“It’s very difficult for me to report that I lost a great friend,” the director told Czech Radio.
“I think Věra was one of the greatest Czechs we ever had.”