In the East Room, one of the largest in the White House and still too small to host today’s event, Biles and Rapinoe were the only two athletes among 17 athletes to be presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor for civilians .
Biden honors 17 people with the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Around her were people whose life stories could fill history books on modern America’s best ideals and worst impulses. In the front row, masked and radiant in pink, was Diane Nash, a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; back row, center sat former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who had to learn to walk and speak again after being shot in the head; alongside her was Laurene Powell Jobs, attending on behalf of her late husband Steve, the co-founder of Apple.
The two athletes lined the ranks of civil rights icons and decorated politicians, yet blended in perfectly.
Rapinoe and Biles made their mark on the nation’s conscience as Team USA athletes. At two Olympic Games, Biles became the most successful American gymnast in history. Solidifying her legacy as a two-time world and Olympic champion, Rapinoe spread her arms, leaned in exactly the same way, and struck a pose of triumph after one of her clutch goals. Their performances on the mat, beam or grass transformed their respective sports, but that’s not why the women were invited to the White House on Thursday.
As transcendent as they are as athletes, Rapinoe and Biles have proven far greater in their roles as brave and unyielding advocates.
The last time Biles appeared publicly in Washington, she testified on Capitol Hill. Though it was the last place she wanted to be, Biles told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as well as the audience, about the emotional scars she was dealing with after experiencing sexual abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar, the disgraced doctor , formerly associated with USA Gymnastics, had survived. As a testament to her greatness, Biles still stands above all other American gymnastics medalists, although she only added a bronze medal during the 2020 games.
In the run-up to Tokyo, dealing with the trauma proved to be “too much,” she later said. Biles retired from individual all-around to focus specifically on mental health. Her choice made her more human than GOAT And sport can use more people.
President Biden began the presentation by focusing on Biles – she had the alphabetical advantage. In addition, she has the distinction of being the youngest-ever Medal of Freedom recipient at just 25 years old.
“She turned personal pain into a greater purpose to stand up and speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves,” Biden said. “Today she contributes to her medal count.”
Biden then read a prompter in the back of the room and turned his attention to the first football player to be honored as a Medal of Freedom recipient.
“Where’s Megan? Megan, where are you?” Biden asked before beginning his remarks. He didn’t notice the pink haired Rapinoe sitting right behind him, cheeky as ever, leaning in closer and waving.
Everything about Rapinoe’s colorful hair and playful personality makes her an easy choice to sell submarine sandwiches, vodka, or credit cards. In 2021, she brought the money from her endorsements just outside the top 10 earning female athletes, according to Forbes. But while they helped the United States women’s national soccer team remain the most dominant in the world, Rapinoe and her teammates were paid less than the men.
The national team filed a class-action lawsuit that turned into a six-year ordeal, and Rapinoe took her cause to Washington, too. Last year she testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform about gender discrimination and later appeared with Biden when he signed the Equal Pay Day proclamation.
“I know there are millions of people in the world who are marginalized because of their gender and are experiencing the same thing at work. And I know there are people who are still experiencing more where the layers of discrimination continue to pile up against them. And I and my teammates are there for them,” Rapinoe said during the White House event. “We at the US women’s national team are here today because of you.”
In February, the US women’s national team reached a $24 million settlement with the US Soccer Association. Before realizing that accomplishment, Biden took a detour to storytime. He turned to Rapinoe while remembering the excitement his granddaughter, a high school athlete, had at meeting them. She’s scored goals and posed like a Greek god, but for generations to come, Rapinoe’s legacy will be her relentless dedication off the field.
“She helped lead the move to what is perhaps the most important win for anyone on the football team or any football team — equal pay for women,” Biden said, to thunderous applause in the room.
The ceremony continued. Fred Gray, the attorney who represented Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and the NAACP during the civil rights fight, sat cross-legged and flashed his red socks until he stood alone to be decorated with a medal. At 91, he is still practicing law. Cindy McCain dabbed her eyes as Biden recalled her late husband, Senator John McCain. Sandra Lindsay, the New York City nurse and vaccine advocate, reached out and placed her hand on McCain’s comfortingly. And after the Goldstar father, the Catholic priest, the late AFL-CIO President’s son, the gymnast and the footballer and all the others received their medals, the President made a final statement.
“This is America,” Biden said.