American President Joe Biden announced his inaugural list of recipients for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It ranks as amongst the highest civilian awards the United States can bestow on someone. For many of the politicians and industrialists who have won it, it is the crowning achievement of their respective careers.
As you can tell where this article is going, Simone Biles was announced as one of the recipients and it is a historic moment for both the sport of gymnastics and Simone herself. Biles and soccer player Megan Rapinoe will become the 7th and 8th Olympians to have ever won this award. Before today this award has been limited to Olympians in basketball, Track & Field, and boxing. Most Olympians who win the Presidential Medal of Freedom are mostly known thanks to their participation in non-Olympic sports leagues. Most notably the NCAA and NBA in basketball. Their status as Olympians is more of an afterthought or a minor component within the context of a highly acclaimed athletic career that occurred outside the Olympic umbrella of sports.
With this in mind I’d argue that Simone Biles is one of just two Olympians, the other being the legendary Jesse Owens who won this award while being associated primarily with the Olympics and have no other association with another sports league.
At the Tokyo Olympics Simone’s worst nightmare came true with five years of hard work going down the drain due to an ill-timed case of the “Twisties.” At the beginning of the Olympics Simone Biles had qualified to the finals in all six events in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG). There was a possibility Simone could jump from the #23rd most decorated WAG in Olympic history, to the 2nd most decorated. She could have become the first WAG since 1988 to win a medal on every event at the Olympics. Biles could have formally added her iconic Yurchenko Double Piked Vault to the Code of Points.
Instead, none of that would happen and at the time many interpreted the medal Simone didn’t win in 2021 as a career setback. But as soon as news of Simone’s withdrawal made its rounds in the media, a different narrative was starting to take shape. That being, the courage, bravery, and integrity Simone Biles displayed in Tokyo resonated with people more than six Olympic medals ever could. In Tokyo, Simone went from witnessing success, to witnessing failure, to being part of something that suddenly became more important than winning or losing.
The general public overwhelmingly agreed with Simone that her personal safety and mental well being came before any Olympic gold medal. The general public rallied around Biles with such widespread support, it could be argued that she walked away from Tokyo with more love and fanfare than what Simone would have received if she won six medals in traditional fashion.
From the beginning of Simone’s well documented “Tokyo moment,” it was already being noticed that this event will end up doing for more to empower Simone’s legacy than detract from it. Simone Biles winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom is further verification of that.
For a wide variety of reasons, Simone Biles deserves this honor. Simone Biles is one of the finest athletes the United States has ever produced. She also used her Olympic moment to promote a national conversation on mental health. Lastly, few athletes in recent memory have shown such strong leadership qualities as Simone has since 2015.
Simone Biles took a leadership role during the Nassar-scandal in support of her fellow sister survivors. Simone didn’t appear as comfortable being thrust into the role of a public speaker as her contemporaries such as McKayla Maroney and Aly Raisman were. Nor is it known if Simone ever wanted such personal details about herself to be revealed to the public.
But Simone did it anyways, even following Maggie Nichols, Maroney, and Raisman to Washington D.C. where Biles’ image was broadcasted on CNN while she confronted Congress to tell her story. Simone did it because she knew her voice mattered the most. Because she was the most high profile figure in her sport and Biles’ appearance was critical to her sister survivors achieving the outcome they wanted. Simone didn’t have to come forward or take such a visible role as the scandal unfolded, but Simone did it anyways out of a sense of personal duty.
Leadership is often seen as being the inspiration for others around you. But it is also involves rising to the occasion whether you want to or not. Knowing that you are the one who must answer the call because no one else can fill that role as effectively as you. Simone Biles started her career as a legend inside the gym. In the last few years of her career she has been equally a legend outside of the gym. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is a testament to just how important her legacy has been in moments that have nothing to do with a D or E score.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is one of the most prestigious awards there is and as a result it usually takes a lifetime to win it. At 25 years old Simone Biles will be one of the youngest to ever win it. The media has already determined she is the youngest athlete to have ever won it. The question now is whether Simone is the youngest ever? In time I will have the answer to that. I have been unable to find a database which ranks recipients by age. But I will go through all 664 winners one by one to find a comparable example of a young recipient as part of a future project. This question is too fascinating to go unanswered.
The only conceivable way Simone Biles will not be the youngest ever to have won this award is if I find a child activist from back in the day who achieved enough success to obtain presidential recognition, or the existence of a young academic who achieved a major breakthrough worthy of recognition from the White House while still pursing a Master’s Degree. Regardless of that possibility, Simone just won one of the most prestigious awards any American could ever possibly win. And she just became amongst the youngest to ever do it.