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'This is America': Biden awards Medal of Freedom to Simone Biles, John McCain and 15 others

Other recipients include Gabby Giffords, the late Steve Jobs, Denzel Washington, Megan Rapinoe and Khizr Khan.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 17 people Thursday, including former Rep. Gabby Giffords, Olympic gymnast Simone Biles and the late Sen. John McCain.

Biden also awarded the medals, the country's highest civilian honor, to U.S. soccer player Megan Rapinoe; actor Denzel Washington; Khizr Khan, the father of a fallen Muslim Army captain; and Sandra Lindsay, a New York nurse who was among the first in the country to receive a Covid vaccination.

Speaking at an event at the White House, Biden called the recipients an “extraordinary, extraordinary group of Americans.”

“The Fourth of July week reminds us what brought us together long ago and still binds us — binds us at our best, what we strive for,” Biden said. “We the people, doing what we can to ensure that the idea of America, the cause of freedom, shines like the sun to light up the future of the world.

“This is America,” he said, gesturing to the stage full of award winners.

Three recipients were awarded the medal posthumously: McCain, who served in the Senate with Biden and in the House and became the Republican presidential nominee in 2008; Steve Jobs, a co-founder of Apple Inc.; and Richard Trumka, who was president of the AFL-CIO.

Fred Gray, bottom left, is recognized by President Joe Biden during a ceremony to award the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in the East Room of the White House on July 7, 2022.
Fred Gray, bottom left, is recognized by President Joe Biden during a ceremony Thursday to award the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in the East Room of the White House.Susan Walsh / AP

Giffords, who was a House member from Arizona, was shot at a constituent event in Tucson in 2011. She survived and became a major advocate of gun violence prevention efforts.

Biles is the most decorated gymnast in American history, with 32 Olympic and world championship medals, and Rapinoe is an Olympic gold medalist and two-time Women’s World Cup champion.

Rapinoe wore a white suit with the initials of WNBA star Brittney Griner embroidered on the lapel. Hours before the White House ceremony, Griner, who has been detained in Russia since February, pleaded guilty to drug charges in a Moscow court. “The most important part of today,” Rapinoe wrote in an Instagram post of a photo of the embroidered initials.

The eight other recipients are former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., a prominent advocate of campaign finance reform and marriage equality; Sister Simone Campbell, an advocate for progressive issues; Julieta García, the first Hispanic woman to serve as president of a U.S. college; Fred Gray, one of the first Black members of the Alabama Legislature since Reconstruction; the Rev. Alexander Karloutsos, former vicar-general of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; Diane Nash, a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who worked with Martin Luther King Jr.; Wilma Vaught, an Air Force brigadier general and one of the most decorated women in the history of the U.S. military; and Raúl Yzaguirre, a civil rights advocate who was the CEO and president of the National Council of La Raza for 30 years.

President Joe Biden presents gymnast Simone Biles with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House on July 7, 2022.
President Joe Biden presents gymnast Simone Biles with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House on July 7, 2022.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

The medals are awarded by the president to people who have had significant cultural impacts or made great contributions to the country or the world.

Washington was unable to attend Thursday's ceremony because of a positive Covid test, a White House official said. Biden said he would be honored later.