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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Thursday he will give the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the top U.S. civilian honor, to retiring University of Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt, who amassed the most wins of any men's or women's collegiate basketball coach.

Summitt, 59, announced her retirement on Wednesday following the disclosure last year that she suffers from early-onset dementia. Obama, an avid basketball fan, said he was awarding her the medal for her inspiring work as a coach and for her willingness to speak openly and courageously about her battle with Alzheimer's disease.

Summitt coached the Tennessee women's team since 1974 and compiled a record of 1,098 wins and 208 losses, winning eight national championships. She also coached the U.S. women's basketball team to an Olympic gold medal in Los Angeles in 1984.

"Pat's gift has always been her ability to push those around her to new heights, and over the last 38 years, her unique approach has resulted in both unparalleled success on the court and unrivaled loyalty from those who know her and those whose lives she has touched," he said in a statement.

"Pat's coaching career may be over, but I'm confident that her work is far from finished," Obama said, calling her efforts to support Alzheimer's patients, families and research through the Pat Summitt Foundation Fund "truly inspirational."

Summitt, famous for her fiery court-side presence, announced last August she had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's, a degenerative disease characterized by a progressive decline in memory, comprehension and judgment.

The White House said Summitt was notified last week that Obama had decided to give her the award.

(Reporting By Laura MacInnis; Editing by Will Dunham)

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