WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom— the nation’s highest civilian honor — to 17 people at a White House ceremony Thursday, including Simone Biles, Denzel Washington, Megan Rapinoe, and late Senator John McCain.
"Today, she adds to her medal count," Biden said as he introduced Biles, a former foster child whose 32 Olympic and World Championship medals make her the most decorated U.S. gymnast in history.
"I don't know how you're going to find room," for another medal, Biden joked. The 25-year-old is an advocate for athletes' mental health, foster care children and sexual assault victims. She's also the youngest person to ever receive the medal," Biden said.
The Democratic president, who took office at a critical point during the coronavirus pandemic, also honored Sandra Lindsay, the Queens, New York, nurse who was the first person to be vaccinated against COVID-19 outside of clinical trials during a live television appearance in December 2020.
It was the first time Biden had awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His recipient list included both living and deceased honorees, some of them representing various stages of the president's life, from the Catholic nuns who taught him as a boy growing up in Claymont, Delaware, to Republican lawmakers he served with in the Senate to a college professor like his wife, Jill, to advocates of tightening access to firearms.
Biden introduced Gabby Giffords as "one of the most courageous people I have ever known."
File photo shows (L-R, top) Gymnast Simone Biles, actor Denzel Washington, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, US soccer star Megan Rapinoe, Khizr Khan, a Goldstar father, Apple CEO Steve Jobs, late Senator John McCain, and AFL-CIO President Richard
The former Arizona congresswoman founded the organization named Giffords to campaign for an end to gun violence and restrictions on access to guns. The Democrat almost died after she was shot in the head in January 2011 during a constituent event in Tucson.
Biden noted that he recently signed the most sweeping gun-control legislation in decades — though he and others would like even more restrictions — and credited Giffords and families like her own whose lives have been altered by gun violence for helping to make it happen.
"She's the embodiment of a single signature American trait: never, ever give up," Biden said.
Biden also recognized former Republican Sens. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and John McCain of Arizona, recalling a less partisan era of Washington in which members of different parties would argue over issues during the day and then meet over dinner at night.
Biden said he didn't appreciate the political competition, but "I never stopped admiring John ... I knew his honor, his courage and commitment."
The award is presented to people who have made "exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavors," the White House said in a statement on July 1.
Biden himself is a medal recipient. President Barack Obama honored Biden’s public service as a longtime U.S. senator and vice president by awarding him a Presidential Medal of Freedom in January 2017, a week before they left office.
"President Biden has long said that America can be defined by one word: possibilities. These seventeen Americans demonstrate the power of possibilities and embody the soul of the nation – hard work, perseverance, and faith," the White House statement continued. "They have overcome significant obstacles to achieve impressive accomplishments in the arts and sciences, dedicated their lives to advocating for the most vulnerable among us, and acted with bravery to drive change in their communities – and across the world – while blazing trails for generations to come."
Here is the full list of recipients:
Medal of Freedom recipients
Simone Biles-The accomplished Olympic gold medalist has used her platform to advocate for athletes’ mental health and safety, children in the foster care system, and victims of sexual assault.
Denzel Washington-The Academy-Award winning actor has served as National Spokesman for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America for over 25 years.
Megan Rapinoe-Rapinoe is a two-time Women’s World Cup Champion, Olympic gold medalist, and advocate for gender pay equality, racial justice, and LGBTQI+ rights.
John McCain (posthumous)-The late senator was awarded a Purple Heart with one gold star for his service in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam. McCain spent more than five years in captivity in Vietnam while serving in the U.S. Navy. He later represented Arizona in both houses of Congress and was the Republican presidential nominee in 2008. Biden said McCain was a "dear friend" and "a hero."
Steve Jobs (posthumous)-The Apple co-founder is being recognized for his vision, imagination and creativity which led to inventions that have transformed the computer, music, film and wireless industries.
Gabrielle Giffords-Former Congresswoman Giffords was shot in the head and gravely wounded during a January 2011 constituent event in Tucson, Arizona. She has since founded Giffords, an organization dedicated to ending gun violence.
Sister Simone Campbell-Campbell is a member of the Sister of Social Service and a former executive director of NETWRK, a Catholic social justice organization. She is an advocate for economic justice, overhauling the U.S. immigration system and health care policy.
Sandra Lindsay-Lindsay is a New York critical care nurse who served on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic response and became an advocate for COVID-19 vaccinations after receiving the first dose in the U.S.
Julieta Garcia- A former president of the University of Texas at Brownsville, Garcia was the first Latina to become a college president, the White House said. She was named one of the nation’s best college presidents by Time magazine.
Fred Gray-Gray was one of the first Black members of the Alabama Legislature after Reconstruction. He was a prominent civil rights attorney who represented Rosa Parks, the NAACP and Martin Luther King Jr.
Father Alexander Karloutsos-Karloutsos is the assistant to Archbishop Demetrios of America. The White House said Karloutsos has counseled several U.S. presidents.
Khizr Khan-An immigrant from Pakistan, Khan's Army officer son was killed in Iraq. Khan gained national prominence, and became a target of Donald Trump's wrath, after speaking at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Diane Nash-A founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Nash organized some of the most important 20th century civil rights campaigns and worked with King.
Alan Simpson-The retired U.S. senator from Wyoming served with Biden and has been a prominent advocate for campaign finance reform, responsible governance and marriage equality.
Richard Trumka-Trumka had been president of the 12.5 million-member AFL-CIO for more than a decade at the time of his August 2021 death. He was a past president of the United Mine Workers.
Wilma Vaught-A brigadier general, Vaught is one of the most decorated women in U.S. military history, breaking gender barriers as she has risen through the ranks. When Vaught retired in 1985, she was one of only seven female generals in the Armed Forces.
Raúl Yzaguirre-A civil rights advocate, Yzaguirre was president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza for 30 years. He served as U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic under Obama.
The Associated Press contributed to this story. This story was reported from Washington, D.C.