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Biden to award Medal of Freedom to Biles, John McCain, Denzel Washington

Simone Biles wears her bronze medal from the balance beam competition at the 2020 Summer Olympics on Aug. 3, 2021, in Tokyo. (Natacha Pisarenko/AP)

An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Alan Simpson (R) was a former governor. Simpson, a former Wyoming state House member and U.S. senator, is a son of former Wyoming governor Milward Simpson. The article has been updated.

President Biden will award the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to 17 people in a wide variety of endeavors, including gymnast Simone Biles, Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington and, posthumously, inventor Steve Jobs and the late Sen. John McCain.

Biden’s list of recipients, his first as president, include stalwarts of politics, sports, entertainment, civil rights and the military. He will present the awards at the White House on July 7.

“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 said in a statement.

The honorees range from Biles, 25, the most decorated U.S. gymnast in history who has advocated for sexual assault victims, to former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), 90, the sharp-tongued politician and governor’s son who served 18 years in the Senate and was outspoken on the issue of fiscal responsibility.

‘Olympic athletes are human’: Simone Biles withdrawal puts mental health in global spotlight

Other honorees include Sister Simone Campbell, former director of Network, a Catholic social justice organization, who was instrumental in getting the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010. Biden once joined her “Nuns on the Bus” tour.

The president also is recognizing Washington, actor, director and producer who has served as the national spokesman for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America for more than 25 years; and Megan Rapinoe, a member of the U.S. women’s national soccer team since 2006 who has won one Olympic gold medal and two World Cup championships. She is also captain of OL Reign, a Seattle-based pro team in the National Women’s Soccer League.

Rapinoe’s exploits on the soccer field are matched by her activism off it. She has played prominent roles in pushing for equal pay for the women’s national team and spoken out on social justice and LGBTQ issues.

In a call with reporters Friday, she cited inspiration from former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who six years ago began kneeling during the playing of the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality.

“I just think back to these incredible figures that I’ve been able to walk in their path,” Rapinoe said. “Obviously Colin Kaepernick. You’re so brave and you gave us all the path to use our voice and to step outside of ourselves.”

Soon after Kaepernick started kneeling, Rapinoe did, as well.

“Really early on, after kneeling when everyone was so mad, it just clicked. ‘Oh, this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. This is exactly the way that I’m supposed to be doing it.’ ”

She also credited tennis star Billie Jean King, saying King “really opened so many doors and set the stage for so many of us.”

During his four years in office, Donald Trump, honored 24 people, a list populated by practitioners of his favorite sport of golf — Tiger Woods, Gary Player and Annika Sorenstam — and some of his fiercest supporters, such as radio host Rush Limbaugh, former congressman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).

Trump to give ally Nunes the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Biden’s list of political honorees includes Republicans and Democrats. Former representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), co-founded Giffords, a nonprofit focused on preventing gun violence, after she was shot in the head at a constituent event in Tucson in January 2011 and gravely wounded. She is married to former astronaut and Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), who is up for reelection this year.

Biden served in the Senate with McCain (R-Ariz.), the 2008 Republican presidential nominee and decorated Vietnam War veteran who died in 2018 of brain cancer. McCain’s widow, Cindy, endorsed Biden in 2020 as the Democrat reversed the party’s fortunes in Arizona, winning the state. Cindy McCain is now the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Agencies for Food and Agriculture.

Jobs, who died in 2011 of cancer, was the co-founder and chief executive of Apple, whose company’s inventions revolutionized the lives of billions of people worldwide with its Mac computers, iPhone and the iPod.

In the announcement, the White House said the recipients “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.”

The list includes Khizr Khan, a Gold Star father who has been an advocate for the rule of law and religious freedom while serving on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; and Wilma Vaught, one of the most decorated women in the history of the U.S. military.

Biden will honor Fred Gray, one of the first Black members of the Alabama legislature since Reconstruction and an attorney who represented civil rights activists the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks along with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Other honorees include Raúl Yzaguirre, a civil rights advocate who served as chief executive and president of National Council of La Raza for 30 years, and Diane Nash, a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Rapinoe learned of the honor about a week ago while the team was training in the Denver area, the U.S. Soccer Federation said. She was having lunch with her teammates between a weightlifting session and a practice when her phone rang. The screen flashed, “The White House.”

Skeptical it was an authentic call, Rapinoe showed the phone screen to teammate Kelley O’Hara.

“You probably need to pick that up,” O’Hara said.

Other recipients are:

  • Julieta García, the former president of the University of Texas at Brownsville and the first Hispanic woman to serve as a college president.
  • Father Alexander Karloutsos, the former vicar general of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
  • Sandra Lindsay, a New York critical-care nurse who served on the front lines of the pandemic response.
  • Richard Trumka, the late president of the AFL-CIO.