WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday presented the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to 17 people, including gymnast Simone Biles, the late John McCain, the Arizona Republican whom Biden served with in the Senate, and gun-control advocate Gabby Giffords.
“Today, she adds to her medal count,” Biden said as he introduced Biles, a former foster child whose 32 Olympic and World Championship medals make her the most decorated U.S. gymnast in history.
“I don’t know how you’re going to find room,” for another medal, Biden joked. The 25-year-old is an advocate for athletes’ mental health, foster care children and sexual assault victims. She’s also the youngest person to ever receive the medal, Biden said.
Learn more Simone Biles Is TIME’s 2021 Athlete of the Year
In December 2020, the Democratic president honored Sandra Lindsay (Queens, New York nurse) who became the first to get vaccinated for COVID-19 in a manner other than clinical trials.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom was Biden’s inaugural award. His recipient list included both living and deceased honorees, some of them representing various stages of the president’s life, from the Catholic nuns who taught him as a boy growing up in Claymont, Delaware, to Republican lawmakers he served with in the Senate to a college professor like his wife, Jill, to advocates of tightening access to firearms.
Biden introduced Giffords as “one of the most courageous people I have ever known.”
Learn more Gabby Giffords is optimistic the U.S. will fix gun violence
Giffords was founded by an ex-congressionwoman from Arizona to promote gun violence prevention and restricting access. After being shot in her head at a Tucson constituent event, the Democrat nearly died.
Biden noted that he recently signed the most sweeping gun-control legislation in decades — though he and others would like even more restrictions — and credited Giffords and families like her own whose lives have been altered by gun violence for helping to make it happen.
“She’s the embodiment of a single signature American trait: never, ever give up,” Biden said.
Biden recognized ex-Republican Sens. John McCain and Alan Simpson from Arizona were also honored.
Learn more How John McCain’s Years as a Vietnam POW Shaped His Life
In 2018, McCain succumbed to brain cancer. While serving as a Navy officer, he spent over five years in Vietnam captivity. In the House and Senate, he was later Arizona’s representative and became the Republican presidential nominee in 2008. He competed against Biden and Democrats Barack Obama.
Biden said he didn’t appreciate the political competition, but “I never stopped admiring John … I knew his honor, his courage and commitment.”
The 17 people receiving honors “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 White House said.
Biden himself knows what it’s like to receive the medal. Then-President Obama honored Biden’s decades of public service by awarding him a Presidential Medal of Freedom “with distinction” during a ceremony shortly before they left office in January 2017.
Biden closed the ceremony by declaring, “This is America.”
Other 13 recipients of the medals are:
— Sister Simone Campbell, a member of the Sister of Social Service and a former executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice organization.
— Julieta Garcia, a former president of the University of Texas at Brownsville. According to the White House, Garcia is the first Latina woman to be elected president of a college.
— Fred Gray, one of the first Black members of the Alabama Legislature after Reconstruction. A prominent civil rights attorney, he represented Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and the NAACP. At 91, he still practices law.
— Steve Jobs, the co-founder, chief executive and chair of Apple Inc. In 2011, he died.
— Father Alexander Karloutsos, the assistant to Archbishop Demetrios of America. The White House stated that Karloutsos had counseled several U.S. Presidents. Biden said he is “one of my dear friends.”
— Khizr Khan, a n immigrant from Pakistan, Khan’s Army officer son was killed in Iraq. Khan gained national prominence, and became a target of Donald Trump’s wrath, after speaking at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
— Diane Nash, a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who organized some of the most important 20th century civil rights campaigns and worked with King.
— Megan Rapinoe. The Olympic gold medalist and two-time Women’s World Cup soccer champion captains the OL Reign in the National Women’s Soccer League. Biden is an outspoken advocate for LGBTQI+ rights, gender pay equality, and racial injustice. Biden claimed that she is the President’s first female soccer player to win the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
— Simpson, who served in the Senate with Biden and has been a prominent advocate for campaign finance reform, responsible governance and marriage equality. Biden called Simpson the “real deal” and joked that “he never takes himself too seriously nor takes me seriously.”
— Richard Trumka, who had been president of the 12.5 million-member AFL-CIO for more than a decade at the time of his August 2021 death. He served as the past president of United Mine Workers.
— Wilma Vaught. Vaught, a brigadier-general, is one of America’s most decorated female military officers. She broke down gender barriers while she rose through the ranks. Vaught, who was retired as a brigadier general in 1985 after completing her service in the Armed Forces, was among seven female generals.
— Denzel Washington, a double Oscar-winning actor, director and producer. A Tony Award, two Golden Globes, and the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award are some of his other awards. He is a longtime spokesperson for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Washington could not attend Thursday’s ceremony after testing positive for COVID-19, the White House said. Biden said Washington will receive his medal “when he’s able to get here.”
— Raúl Yzaguirre. Yzaguirre is a civil rights advocate and was CEO of the National Council of La Raza during 30 years.
Read More From Time