Kasich called the women's story one of hurt beyond imagination, but also a story that didn't end there.
"It is also a story of three women who found an inner strength and a courage that brought them through and sustained them," Kasich said near the end of his annual State of the State speech. "No one rescued them, they rescued themselves—first by staying strong and by sticking together, and then by literally breaking out into freedom."
The women were freed when one of them pushed her way through a door and sought help.
The presentation nearly overshadowed Kasich's speech given the women's popularity since their release. They were household names in Cleveland for years as missing persons, and their discovery electrified a community accustomed to bleaker outcomes.
Kasich hugged the women as he entered the hall before his speech and pictures of that moment quickly flew across cyberspace.
As he announced the awards, Kasich called them "three extraordinary women, who despite having the worst in this world thrown at them, rose above it and emerged not as victims, but as victors."
The women—Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight—walked onto the stage to be embraced by the governor and receive their medals.
"Is that just unbelievable," a clearly moved Kasich said to GOP House Speaker William Batchelder and GOP Senate President Keith Faber, who were also on stage. "Wow."
The women were rescued in May after being kidnapped by Ariel Castro from the streets of Cleveland between 2002 and 2004 at the ages of 14, 16 and 20.
Castro periodically kept them chained in rooms, sometimes in the basement, and restricted access to food and toilets. He fathered a girl with one of the victims.
Castro pleaded guilty in August to hundreds of charges. He told a judge at sentencing that he suffered from addictions to sex and pornography. "I'm not a monster. I'm sick," he said.
A month later, on Sept. 3, the 53-year-old Castro hanged himself in prison at the beginning of a life sentence plus 1,000 years.
Associated Press writer Andrew Welsh-Huggins contributed to this report from Columbus.