President Joe Biden awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Simone Biles, the most decorated American gymnast in history, in the East Room of the White House on July 7. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo
July 7 (UPI) -- Gold medal-winning gymnast Simone Biles, two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington and the late war hero and Sen. John McCain received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Joe Biden on Thursday.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the country's highest civilian honor, presented to individuals 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.
Biden praised the 17 recipients of the award as being an "extraordinary group of Americans."
"President Biden has long said that America can be defined by one word: possibilities," the White House said ahead of the ceremony. "These 17 Americans demonstrate the power of possibilities and embody the soul of the nation -- hard work, perseverance, and faith.
"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."
Biles is the most decorated American gymnast in history, with a combined total of 32 Olympic and world championship medals.
Biden said she was the youngest person to receive the Medal of Freedom. He called her a "trailblazer and role model," praising her for speaking up against sexual misconduct within Team USA gymnastics.
She has "absolute courage," he added, "to turn personal pain into a greater purpose, to stand up to speak for those who can't speak for themselves."
Biden also presented fellow Olympic gold medalist Megan Rapinoe with the medal, speaking of her soccer skills and fight for equal pay.
"Beyond the World Cup titles to Olympic medals, Megan is a champion for an essential American truth: that everyone, everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect."
Washington, one of the most decorated actors in Hollywood, has won two Academy Awards, a Tony Award, two Golden Globes and the 2016 Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award. He has also served as National Spokesman for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America for over 25 years.
Washington wasn't able to attend the ceremony and Biden said he would present him with the award at a future date.
John McCain, who died in 2018, served with Biden in the Senate and was awarded a Purple Heart with one gold star for his service in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam. He was the Republican nominee for president in 2008.
John McCain's widow, Cindy McCain, accepted the medal on his behalf.
Others receiving the honor included:
*Sister Simone Campbell
*Dr. Julieta García
*Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords
*Former Alabama Legislator Fred Gray
*Apple co-founder Steve Jobs (posthumous)
*Father Alexander Karloutsos
*Richard Trumka (posthumous)
Biden is also a recipient of the award, having been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom With Distinction by President Barack Obama in a surprise ceremony at the end of his administration. Biden is the only recipient of the medal from Obama with the additional distinction.
Obama said at the time that he gave Biden the award "for your faith in your fellow Americans, for your love of country and for your lifetime of service that will endure through the generations."