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Rio 2016: Simone Biles is unlike any gymnast we’ve ever seen

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

There are only a handful of constants in this world. Simone Biles, the most dominating gymnast the sport has ever seen, is one of them.

On Thursday, Biles won gold at the 2016 Women's Olympic Individual All-Around competition. She scored a 62.198, ahead of American Aly Raisman's 60.098 and Russia's Aliya Mustafina who scored a 58.665.

It was a supreme performance.

On Tuesday, Biles and the American women's gymnastics team annihilated the rest of the field at the 2016 Olympic team event, turning it into a clinic. Team USA finished the competition with a score of 184.897, eight points ahead of Russia — a huge margin considering that gymnastics is a sport scored in fractions of points.

Biles was a huge part of the win, the only one of Team USA's five members to compete in all four events. Her scores helped vault the team ahead of the pack and helped solidify their legacy as the best team in the history of women's gymnastics.

For Biles, her first Olympic gold medals are the culmination of three years of gymnastics domination. But it’s just the beginning for this special, once-in-a-lifetime athlete. Here’s what makes Simone Biles unlike any female gymnast we’ve ever seen.

Simone Biles is in a class of her own when it comes to the floor

Every elite gymnast has a signature event — something that sets him or her apart. It becomes what they’re known for. Nastia Liukin, the 2008 Olympic all-around gold medalist, was stellar on the bars. Liukin’s teammate Shawn Johnson won gold on the balance beam. McKayla Maroney, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist, was untouchable on the vault during the team final.

Biles’s signature event is the floor routine, an unparalleled display of her strength and stamina.

"Every single tumbling pass, she does a double-double on her third pass," Dave Lease, who edits and writes for the gymnastics and figure skating website TSL, explained to me. "That’s what [2012 Olympic gold medalist] Jordyn Wieber mounted on."

Just four years ago, Wieber was considered one of the most powerful gymnasts in competition. In plain English, Lease is saying that Biles’s third tumbling pass is equivalent in difficulty to Wieber’s first pass, a detail that’s significant because gymnasts typically perform their most difficult pass first, when their legs are the freshest.

In short, Biles can perform everyone else’s hardest tumbling pass after she’s completed two even more difficult ones:

Biles’s third pass. (USA Gymnastics)

In her first two passes, Biles is untouchable. She opens with a double layout — look at her form and how extended her stretch is (something that’s very difficult to do) — with a full twist:

Biles’s opening pass. (USA Gymnastics)

She follows her opening pass with her signature move: a double layout with a last-second half-turn that has come to be known as "the Biles." Just look at the air she gets, and how easy she makes it look:

Biles doing the Biles. (USA Gymnastics)

Biles performing at a level above her competitors is sort of expected. World champion gymnasts are world champions for a reason, after all. And the sheer difficulty of her floor routine gives her a big advantage over the competition, because it’s packed with so many skills that it’s worth more points than many of her competitors’ routines. But her talent on the floor is just one factor in her overall dominance.

Biles is also gold-medal good on the balance beam and the vault

At the London Olympics in 2012, the singular moment of the women’s gymnastics team competition was when McKayla Maroney absolutely throttled a vault called the Amanar. Vault was the only event Maroney competed in that night, and despite the fact that there may have been more well-rounded gymnasts, the general consensus was that it was completely worth bringing Maroney to London for a single event, because no one could vault the way Maroney did.

What makes Biles a once-in-a-lifetime gymnast is that she’s not only as good on floor as Maroney was on vault — she’s also as good on vault as Maroney was.

Biles performing the Amanar. (USA Gymnastics)

"Simone Biles on vault and on the floor — she’s basically giving you McKayla Maroney in the team final every time she goes out," Lease said. "We have not seen a gymnast like this since Nadia Comaneci."

The pinnacle of individual gymnastic achievements is the Olympic all-around medal. At the 2012 Olympics, Gabby Douglas walked away with a gold medal in the team and individual all-around, but didn’t medal in any individual events. At the 2008 games, Liukin won gold in the individual all-around as well as silver on both the beam and bars and bronze on floor.

Those results are admirable, mind you — but if Biles leaves Rio with only a team gold and an all-around gold, her performance might be labeled a disappointment because she didn’t live up to her potential.

She’s heavily favored to win gold in the individual all-around, as well as on the floor and the beam. She may win gold on the vault, too; at the very least, she’ll medal. That kind of haul is unheard of. But with Biles, it is expected.

Biles is also mentally tough

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Biles is that for the past three years, she’s consistently lived up to her hype. She’s won every all-around competition she’s entered. In the rare case that she wins silver in an individual event — a huge accomplishment in and of itself — it’s considered a bit of a letdown.

"All of this pressure and she still goes out there and performs like it was any other meet," Lease said of Biles’s performance during the Olympic qualifying competitions earlier this year. "[Biles] and Aly Raisman competed in the Olympic prelims like it was a workout. That’s how unaffected they appeared. They know what they are doing."

Biles’s combination of mental toughness, sheer physical prowess, and extreme skill make her a once-in-a-lifetime (or two lifetimes, if we’re being honest) gymnast, one of the greatest athletes this world will ever see. We should all be thankful we have a few more chances to see that greatness in action later this week.

The Olympic event finals will begin this weekend.

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