Last week, President Joe Biden awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 17 American citizens at the White House.
Among the most important honors given by the president, these medals are presented to nominees in recognition of their commendable works and contribution to values, prosperity, world peace, culture or other significant private endeavors.
Olympic medalist Simone Biles was among this year’s group. A gymnast who has achieved 32 medals across her career, Biles is also an outspoken advocate for mental health and has utilized her platform to achieve transcendence from sports into American culture like only a few have done in the past.
“When we see her compete, we see unmatched power and determination,” Biden said during the ceremony last Thursday. “A trailblazer and a role model, she stands up for people who cannot speak for themselves.”
Biles joins a growing list of athletes who have won the Presidential Medal of Freedom throughout the years, accompanying the likes of Olympian Jesse Owens, women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt and NBA legend Michael Jordan.
Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington also earned a medal after a lifetime full of accolades. In addition to a pair of Academy Awards, he has also won two Golden Globe honors, one Cecil B. DeMille Award and one Tony Award in addition to a Grammy nomination.
Washington missed the White House ceremony after testing positive for COVID-19. Biden referenced Washington’s contributions to the entertainment industry and to American culture, adding “he is one of our greatest actors in American history.”
Similar to Biles from the sports world, Washington joins a litany of entertainment icons to gain such an honor from the White House, including Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro.
The remainder of the recipients and their families were also on hand, and received equal adulation from Biden.
“These 17 Americans demonstrate the power of possibilities and embody the soul of the nation — hard work, perseverance and faith,” Biden said in a statement for the White House. “They have overcome significant obstacles to achieve impressive accomplishments in the arts and sciences, and acted with bravery to drive change in their communities.”
Biden himself is a former recipient of this award. In 2017, he was introduced at the ceremony by former President Barack Obama.
Also among this year’s laureates were:
- Megan Rapinoe, for achievements in national soccer and advocacy for equal pay for women in sports.
- Sister Simone Campbell, for work as an active advocate for healthcare and immigration reform.
- Julieta Garcia, who became the first Hispanic woman to become a college president.
- Gabrielle Giffords, the youngest woman to be elected to the Arizona State Senate.
- Fred Gray, one of the first black Americans who conformed to the Alabama State Legislature since the Reconstruction ages.
- Father Alexander Karloutsos, who provided counsel to past U.S presidents, and former Vicar General of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
- Khizr Khan, defender of religious freedom and the rule of law on par with being the founder of the Constitution Literacy and National Unity Center.
- Sandra Lindsay, the first American to receive a COVID-19 vaccine aside from clinical trials.
- Diane Nash, founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who helped rally crucial non-violent protests in close proximity to Martin Luther King Jr.
- Alan Simpson, a U.S Senator for 18 years, who advocated for campaign finance reform and marriage equality.
- Wilma Vaught, one of the most decorated women in U.S military history, who was one of seven women generals up to her retirement in 1985.
- Raul Yzaguirre, former CEO and president of the National Council of La Raza for 30 years, who helped in the unification of Hispanic communities in the U.S.
- The late Steve Jobs, who revolutionized communication and technology through Apple, Inc.
- The late John McCain, a Republican party nominee for presidential elections in 2008, who was awarded the Purple Heart with one gold star for his service in the Vietnam war.
- The late Richard Trumka, former president of the United Mine Workers, who was a strong advocate for economic and social justice among American workers.
Biden concluded the ceremony by awarding the last medal to Yzaguirre, emphasizing that “this is America,” a country that can only be defined by one word: “possibilities.”