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Megan Rapinoe, left, and President Joe Biden at White House Medal of Freedom ceremony on July 7, 2022

By Nandita Bose and Amy Tennery

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Gymnastics pioneer Simone Biles and twice World Cup winner Megan Rapinoe were among 17 honorees to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House on Thursday from Joe Biden.

The highest U.S. civilian award is given to those who make an "especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."

The most decorated American gymnast with a combined 32 Olympic and world championships medals, Biles performed gravity-defying routines and at the Tokyo Games emerged as a champion for athlete wellness and mental health.

"When she stands on a podium, we see what she is: Absolute courage to turn personal pain into greater purpose. To stand up and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves," Biden said.

The youngest-ever Medal of Freedom honoree, the 25-year-old testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that U.S. gymnastics and Olympics officials failed to stop the sexual abuse athletes suffered from former doctor Larry Nassar.

"Today she adds to her medal count - how are we going to find room?" Biden said.

Rapinoe, soccer's fiery, pink-haired leader on and off the pitch, won Olympic gold in 2012 and emerged as a leading advocate for gender pay equity in her national team's legal dispute with their governing body. She has also strongly and publicly advocated for LGBTQ equality.

"Megan is a champion for essential American truth: That everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect," said Biden.

Rapinoe received her medal with a handshake and wink to Biden, in a white suit jacket with the initials "BG" embroidered on the lapel, an apparent nod to WNBA All Star Brittney Griner, who has been detained in Russia since February on a drug charge.

Other recipients included late Senator John McCain, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, a survivor of gun violence and an advocate for gun violence prevention, and Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington. McCain's fellow posthumous honorees included former AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, and Apple's Steve Jobs.

"I am the guy who encouraged John [McCain] to run for office," Biden said. "I knew what incredible courage, intellect and conscience he had."

Honorees also included Sister Simone Campbell, former University of Texas at Brownsville President Julieta García, Father Alexander Karloutsos, Gold Star father Khizr Khan, critical care nurse Sandra Lindsay, civil rights advocates Diane Nash and Fred Gray, former Senator Alan Simpson, Brigadier General Wilma Vaught, and activist Raúl Yzaguirre.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington and Amy Tennery in New York; editing by Howard Goller)

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