Alexandra Hutzler, ABC News
President Joe Biden on Thursday awarded 17 individuals with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
“On Monday, we celebrated the independence of our nation, a nation always a work in progress in creation of possibilities, the fulfillment of promises. That’s the American story,” Biden said as he opened the ceremony.
“We see an extraordinary, extraordinary group of Americans up here on the stage,” Biden continued.
Household names to receive the award included Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, actor Denzel Washington and soccer star Megan Rapinoe.
Biden celebrated Biles, who has won 32 medals at the world stage, as the “youngest person ever to receive the Medal of Freedom.”
“Today, she adds to her medal count,” Biden quipped. “I don’t know how you’re going to find room.”
Biles spoke with reporters after the event, reflecting on the magnitude of the honor. She said that her sport of gymnastics has had a “cloud” over it the last few years, so “to put some sunshine feels good.”
“Hearing that I was the youngest was a huge honor. It’s kind of scary because it is the best award you can receive in your whole like, so now it’s kind of scary, like, ‘Oh, what do I do now?’ But it’s a huge honor,” Biles said.
ABC News’ Molly Nagle asked her what other young women can take away from her winning the award at such a young age.
“I think it will really teach them that … you can do anything you put your mind to, and just to speak up and use your platforms, be authentic to yourself and stay true to yourself and just go out there and have fun in whatever your adventure is,” the Olympic champion responded.
Biden listed the achievements of all the recipients, which include Alan Simpson, a former U.S. senator from Wyoming; Sister Simone Campbell, a member of Sisters of Social Service; Fred Gray, a distinguished civil rights attorney; Diane Nash, a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; and Raúl Yzaguirre, who served as CEO and president of National Council of La Raza for 30 years.
Other medal recipients are Wilma Vaught, one of the most decorated women in U.S. military history; Sandra Lindsay, a nurse who was the first American to receive the COVID-19 vaccine; Khizr Khan, the father of U.S. Army captain who was killed in Iraq; Father Alexander Karloutsos, a priest who advised several U.S. presidents; and Dr. Julieta García, who was the first Hispanic woman to serve as a college president.
Gabby Giffords, a leading voice for gun control after surviving a mass shooting in 2011, also received an award.
Biden said they will soon “celebrate the most significant gun safety law in 30 years because of them and because of families like theirs all across America” — referencing the recently passed Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.
“Gabby is one of the most courageous people I have ever known,” the president said.
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and former Sen. John McCain were given the honor posthumously, as was former AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka.
Biden and McCain became friends during their time in the Senate. McCain, a Purple Heart recipient and prisoner of war in Vietnam, served Arizona in Congress for decades before succumbing to glioblastoma in 2018.
“We agreed on a lot more than we disagreed on,” Biden reminisced on Thursday.
“I never stopped admiring John,” Biden continued. “I never said a negative thing about him in my life because I knew his honor, his courage and his commitment. That was John McCain.”
Cindy McCain was on stage to accept the award on behalf of her late husband.
Laurene Powell-Jobs accepted her late husband’s award and Richard Trumka Jr. accepted the award on behalf of his father.
Not in attendance was Washington, one of the 17 recipients. A White House official said Washington was unable to partake in the ceremony because of a COVID-19 result.
Biden hailed Washington as “one of the greatest actors in American history” and said he will give him the award at a later date.
The White House said approximately 250 were in attendance at the ceremony, which was held in the East Room of the White House. Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff were there, as well as several members of the president’s cabinet.
Spotted at the ceremony were Hunter Biden and his wife Melissa Cohen. Several members of Congress were also in the room, including Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.
Biden is the first president to give out these medals after receiving one himself in 2017, while he was serving as vice president. Former President Barack Obama awarded Biden for his “lifetime of service that will endure through the generations.”
“This is America,” Biden said as the ceremony concluded.