Simone Biles and nurse who received first Covid vaccine to get top US honor

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<span>Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters

The gymnast Simone Biles and soccer player Megan Rapinoe are among 17 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian honor, the White House announced on Friday.

The two sport stars are being celebrated for their accomplishments in competition and in social activism.

Biles, the most decorated gymnast in history, with 32 Olympic and world championship medals, was also recognized for her activism surrounding mental health and sexual assault.

Following her withdrawal from several events at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Biles was widely praised for speaking about the mental health challenges of being an elite athlete.

With several teammates, Biles also spoke out about sexual abuse perpetrated by a former USA Gymnastics doctor, Larry Nassar. In 2021, Biles testified in front of the Senate judiciary committee.

Rapinoe, an Olympic medalist and two-time World Cup winner, is being celebrated as a campaigner for gender pay equality, racial justice and LGBTQ+ rights.

Rapinoe has been outspoken about pay inequality between women and men’s sports, visiting the White House in March for Equal Pay Day and testifying about pay discrepancies in Congress.

Joe Biden, who will bestow the honors this year, is a past recipient of the medal. Barack Obama gave him it in January 2017, calling him “the best vice-president America’s ever had” and a “lion of American history”.

Other 2022 honorees included the actor Denzel Washington, the late Republican senator and presidential candidate John McCain, the late Apple founder Steve Jobs and Sandra Lindsay, the first American to receive a Covid-19 vaccine.

Gabrielle Giffords, a former Arizona congresswoman and mass shooting survivor who now campaigns for gun control reform, will also be honored.

In a statement, 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 award ceremony will take place on 7 July.