If you thought Simone Biles was done making history and collecting medals…not so fast.
The decorated gymnast is among the 17 extraordinary people being recognized with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She is joined by legendary actor Denzel Washington, civil rights activist Diane Nash, civil rights attorney Fred Gray and critical care nurse Sandra Lindsay, who was the first person to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian honor in the country.
“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. “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.”
In addition to her seven Olympic medals—four of which are gold—Biles has been a vocal advocate for sexual assault survivors. She and her fellow survivors are currently suing the FBI for its mishandling of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse investigation.
In the wake of her own issues at the Tokyo Olympics, Biles has also spoken out about mental health issues among athletes. A true role model on and off the mat, at 25 years old, the seven-time national champion is the youngest person to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Also receiving this distinguished honor is Denzel Washingon, one of the greatest actors in the history of stage and screen. From Malcolm X, to Fences, to Remember the Titans, to American Gangster, he makes every movie and character more fascinating just with his presence. The Oscar-winner has also used his fame to elevate the work of other Black artists, making sure that the doors he opened don’t close behind him.
As one of the founders and leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Diane Nash’s contributions to the civil rights movement are invaluable. However, it’s only been in the last 10-15 years that the women who gave so much to the cause have received their due. While men got the press and attention, it was the women who kept things running behind the scenes. It’s beautiful to see Nash recognized for her contributions to American history.
Another important figure in the civil rights movement, Fred Gray, will also be honored for his work. Gray defended Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks when they refused to sit in the back of segregated buses, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who dubbed him “the chief counsel for the protest movement.”
At a time when many Americans, especially Black people, were questioning the validity of the COVID-19 vaccine, critical care nurse Sandra Lindsay became the first person outside of clinical trials to receive the vaccine, once again proving that Black women lead the way.
Other notable names receiving the Medal of Freedom include U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team star/activist Megan Rapinoe, Sen. John McCain, former congresswoman/gun violence activist Gabrielle Giffords and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony takes place at the White House on Thursday, July 7.