If you think about the Olympics as a book — millennia long, depending on how you count, with just as many triumphs and tragedies and medals — then last week was the start of the next chapter.
Or, to torture the metaphor just a little bit more: 110 hopeful athletes gathered in Los Angeles to write the first pages of what will become the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Across five days and more than three times as many stages in a production facility in L.A., dozens of America’s best gymnasts and runners and swimmers and surfers and wrestlers (and more) gathered to help promote the Summer Olympics in an event organized by NBC and Team USA.
“I still find it fun,” says Nathan Adrian, a five-time gold medalist in swimming who survived a testicular cancer diagnosis which he revealed in January. “I still feel very blessed to wake up, go to a place, do the sport that I love and then also be surrounded by like people that also enjoy the sport and people that I enjoy.”
PEOPLE was behind the scenes with Adrian and all the others for the week, to see the photo shoots and the props and the puppies (yes, puppies) as the athletes came and went in a brief break from their preparation. They were as tall or as small and mighty as one might imagine — no TV screen could do them justice — and unfailingly game to talk about what unites them.
“When you grow up and you’re dreaming, you’re dreaming about the first time,” says swimmer Ryan Murphy, a three-time gold medalist at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016 who is pushing to return to Tokyo.
Fellow swimmer Lilly King, another gold medalist in Rio who went viral in a face-off with her Russian rival, tells PEOPLE: “Before the Olympics, I was a completely different person. I literally went from nobody knowing my name to overnight fame.”
Not many others know the feeling — except the other athletes in L.A. Among them were Simone Biles, Megan Rapinoe and Ryan Lochte, all returning Olympic champions who’ve had headline-making years since Rio.
“I feel like a veteran, I feel like the mom of the group,” says Biles, 22. After earning five medals in gymnastics at the 2016 Games (in a performance that landed her on the cover of PEOPLE), she’s set to compete in Tokyo with at least some new teammates.
“I’ve only known her for a couple of years, but it’s been amazing being with her because she does know so much already, because she’s had so much experience,” 17-year-old gymnast Grace McCallum says of Biles. “And so she really guides you and shows you the way.”
What does Biles teach best? The other gymnasts agree: how to do hair and makeup.
Rapinoe, like Biles, is eyeing more Olympic gold after a triumphant World Cup appearance this summer co-captaining the American women’s soccer team. She has been no less bold off the field, speaking up for equal pay for women and speaking out against President Donald Trump. (“There are children locked up at the border who are dying, and that’s not fazing him,” she said in July. “So why would I faze him?”)
Speaking with PEOPLE, Rapinoe, 34, shares this advice for boys and girls who want to become change-makers, too:
“There’s a lot of options for little boys, they probably don’t need any advice. They have all the options readily available to them in culture. But I think for girls, I would just say to not limit yourself to anything. Dream way past beyond what we’re doing right now.”
“I think if we’ve done our jobs, then we’ve given them a much bigger palette to choose from,” Rapinoe says, “and hopefully they can just dream beyond anything that we’re doing.”
One of the world’s most-watched events, the Olympics put billions’ of people’s attention on athletes whose success they may never have even thought was possible.
“My body has taught me that you’re capable of so much more than you think you can be,” says Melissa Stockwell, a Paralympic bronze medalist in triathlete who lost a leg in a roadside bombing while serving in the Army in Iraq.
“I think a lot of people are scared to do things because they’re like, ‘No, I can never do that,’ ” Stockwell says. “But in reality, if you just try something, you’re amazed at what you can do.”
Ashleigh Johnson, a 2016 Olympic gold medalist water polo goalie, is one of the rare black competitors in her sport. “It’s part of my mission now to be that representative and be like, ‘It’s possible. You deserve to be here. You belong here,’ ” she tells PEOPLE.
“We’re competitors,” says David Brown, the world’s fastest blind athlete and a Paralympic gold medalist, who competes with a guide. “We’re out there to represent our country. We’re athletes with disabilities and we’re just as competitive as Olympic athletes.”
Six-time gold medalist Allyson Felix intends to return to the Olympics, this time as a mother, having broken Usain Bolt‘s record for the most world championship gold medals less than a year after an emergency cesarean section.
“I feel super blessed in this sport and I just want to embrace every moment knowing that this is my last time around,” Felix, 34, says. “I want to savor it. I want to step out there and represent women and mothers.”
Others, like Lochte, are looking for “redemption.” Already a swimming legend after his wins in the 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 Games, Lochte’s career was derailed following a scandal spun out from a claim he made about being robbed at gunpoint while in Brazil. (He has repeatedly apologized.) He was also suspended from competition for violating a rule about the amount of infusions athletes can receive, even though the substance was not illegal.
Still, he hasn’t stopped training. And he has a new reason to compete after welcoming son Caiden in 2017 and daughter Liv in June.
“I just have a different drive than I ever had before,” he says.
“If I make the Olympic team and everything, this will be one of the biggest comeback stories in sports, just because of everything that has happened with me the past couple of years,” he tells PEOPLE.
More than a decade older than some of his possible teammates, Lochte looks at Tokyo as one more shot as an athlete.
So does beach volleyball icon Kerri Walsh Jennings, who last didn’t earn an Olympic medal nearly two decades ago. Her story isn’t over either.
“It’s a chapter ending. A big one. It’s a book-end in my Olympic competitive career and it’ll be my last one regardless,” she says. “And I’m so excited. I committed to Tokyo because I want to finish on top.”
To learn more, visit teamusa.org. The Tokyo Olympics begin next summer on NBC.
• With reporting by KAREN MIZOGUCHI
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