In my quick reaction to Simone Biles being honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, I challenged myself to determine if Simone was the youngest person to ever win this award. That would require checking all 664 winners of this award and going through their birth years one at a time. I did exactly that and the answer is:
As much as I would love for this to have been a “yes or no” question. It depends on how you define it.
Simone Biles is the youngest living recipient of this award.
To clarify so there is no confusion, she is the youngest winner who didn’t earn this award posthumously. She is also the youngest to win this award when measuring from the year of her birth to the year she won the award.
Additionally, Simone is also the youngest to win the Presidential Medal of Freedom as an individual, this includes both living recipients and posthumous recipients.
At 25 years old, Simone doesn’t narrowly hold these age records, she absolutely shatters them. The next youngest was Megan Rapinoe who won this award at the exact same time as Biles did. Rapinoe is 36 years old, thereby giving Simone an 11 year advantage over these age records. Furthermore, to clarify just how extreme of an outlier these cases are, while studying this question I determined that roughly 94% of award recipients were in their mid-60s or older. The vast majority of recipients were at least 70 years in age. Only about two dozen examples went to those in their early 50s or younger.
As for who was younger than Simone Biles when they won the award? It was the victims of the Freedom Summer murders, Andrew Goodman (age 20), James Chaney (age 21), and Michael Schwerner (age 24). The trio of Civil Rights Workers were murdered in Mississippi during the Summer of 1964. It wasn’t until 2014 that their legacy was honored in the form of a Presidential Medal of Freedom. They would have been 70, 71, and 74 years old had they still been alive. Right in line with the typical age of a recipient for the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
What makes this case complex is how one wishes to interpret why they were given the award. Do you treat them as martyrs and emphasize their young ages? Or do you treat this recognition as a lifetime achievement award? Recognizing that each decade they didn’t live, was a decade where their martyrdom continued to be an important moment taught in schools, made into Hollywood films, and was ultimately accepted as one of the defining moments of the American Civil Rights Movement.
When I started this project, I hoped it would be something innocent and fun trying to figure out if Simone Biles was the quickest person to win the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Jokingly highlighting how a gymnast ended up being the one to beat out numerous Presidents, Senators, Nobel Prize winners, NFL Players, Hollywood celebrities and such. What it turned into instead was a trio of brave young men “winning” this distinction in a way no one wants to win.