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The women's gymnastics competition is one of the most anticipated events of the Tokyo Olympics. American Simone Biles is again at the top of her game, and she is the heavy favorite to defend the all-around title from the 2016 Rio Games. Eric Schmid of St. Louis Public Radio reports that the world's most decorated gymnast is approaching the sport's largest stage a little differently this time.
ERIC SCHMID, BYLINE: Simone Biles enters the Tokyo Olympics as the greatest gymnast in a generation, if not all time. Biles hasn't lost a competition since the middle of 2013, and she wins them by full points in a sport where competitors are usually separated by tenths or hundredths of a point. The world's best gymnast says she wants to savor the Olympic experience this time around.
SIMONE BILES: 2016 was such a blur. Once we got over there, everything happened so quick. This time we get to relax a little bit and kind of enjoy training and enjoy the process.
SCHMID: Biles will still compete hard, showing off the range of skills she's developed that were once considered impossible. Chief among them, a triple-twisting double backflip on the floor exercise and the Yurchenko double pike - a vault that launches her so high, she completes 2 1/2 flips before landing. She's the only woman to ever land it in competition. Biles acknowledges how her performances have pushed other athletes to up the difficulty in their own routines.
BILES: We have reached a point where gymnastics is getting more difficult and more difficult and a little bit more dangerous, so we're kind of walking on eggshells here.
SCHMID: Like with her latest vault routine, Biles hasn't always been rewarded for pushing the boundaries of the sport. The International Gymnastics Federation undervalued her new beam dismount in 2019 to discourage other athletes from attempting it. Biles expects the same thing will happen to her latest vault in Tokyo, and she says it's not something worth fighting.
BILES: Of course we would want it to be a higher value, but it's looking like it's not going to be, so what are we going to do? If I can still go out there and do it, I'm still going to go out there and do it, regardless of the value that's given.
SCHMID: That attitude is part of what drew record attendance to the Olympic team trials in St. Louis last month. Jillian Ngando traveled with her family to the competition from Mobile, Ala.
JILLIAN NGANDO: Simone shows that you can really just do anything if you really put your mind to it. She has proved over and over again that she's the best out of the best.
SCHMID: The 15-year-old gymnast was among the more than 20,000 people who journeyed from across the country for a chance to see the world's best gymnast literally fly.
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SCHMID: Eight-year-old gymnast Gabrielle Grant says she sees Biles as a role model.
GABRIELLE GRANT: She inspires me to just keep pushing, even though times get hard.
SCHMID: Grant's mother, Jessica, says Biles's career demonstrates what's possible for her own daughter to achieve.
JESSICA: Beyond everything that she's faced in her life, she accomplished this. And so it just shows you that your circumstances don't determine your future.
SCHMID: But for Biles, this outside attention can magnify the pressure she feels to perform well. She says anything less than her best annoys her, and she can start to doubt her own abilities.
BILES: Just disappointing when I can't show the crowd exactly what I've been training to do.
SCHMID: This time in Tokyo will be different for obvious reasons. For one, there won't be any spectators because of the pandemic. But it's also different for Biles because she's joined by training partner and Olympic teammate Jordan Chiles, who says she and Biles share a tight bond.
JORDAN CHILES: There's always got to be that one who can help you no matter what in circumstances of you being tired, you being annoyed or angry and somebody who can truly understand you. And I think that's where our relationship is.
SCHMID: A win in the all-around would make Simone Biles the first woman to defend that Olympic title in more than 50 years, an achievement that could cement her place as one of the all-time greatest competitors in any sport.
For NPR News, I'm Eric Schmid in St. Louis.
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