What Will Surprise You About the 2020 Olympics: One of the World's Best Climbers (at 18!) & More

Next year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo are — as of Wednesday — less than 365 days away, promising more gravity-defying gymnastics, friction-fighting track and field stars and almost certainly a bevvy of big-name American athletes such as Serena Williams.

The next Games will see several firsts as well with the addition of sports such as rock climbing, skateboarding and surfing.

This week PEOPLE spoke with six Olympic hopefuls, some of whom are previous Olympic champions looking for a repeat trip to the podium.

They talked about the joys and challenges of competition, the “bliss” of overcoming what seemed impossible — and they gave a peak into their personal lives.

Here’s what you need to know and what may surprise you.

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Jordan Burroughs

The 31-year-old wrestler, from Sicklerville, New Jersey, already has a gold medal, a feat he accomplished at the London Summer Olympics in 2012.

Though he saw disappointment at the 2016 Games, failing to crack the top three, Burroughs says he has his sights set on a return to glory. (Should he make the cut for Team USA, his son and daughter, Beacon and Ora, will be with him with his wife, Lauren.)

“I don’t want this to be the final chapter in my story,” he tells PEOPLE. “This is a comma, not a period, so I wanted to come back and do things my own way.”

Describing it as a “chance to redeem himself,” Burroughs says he’s also thinking of what kind of dad he is for his kids when he thinks about the kind of athlete he continues to be.

“I wanted to always embody the work ethic that they needed to see at home in order to be inspired to be their best when they have an opportunity to do so,” he says.

He doesn’t know yet if either Beacon or Ora will wrestle as they get older, though they both already have appropriately sized wrestling shoes and singlets. “I hope they wrestle, we’ll see,” he says.

Burroughs says he’s thrilled wrestling continues to be a part of the Games, after a fear in recent years that the Olympics would drop it.

Of all the places he’s competed around the world, he says it’s actually Iran where he is most thrillingly received. (He has more Instagram followers from Tehran, the capital, than any other city on Earth.)

“I feel like the Beatles freaking getting off a plane in London back in the ’60s when I go to Iran,” he says.

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Alex Johnson

Making it to the Games next year would be a first for Johnson at the same time her sport is making its Olympic debut. A 30-year-old rock climber from Hudson, Wisconsin, she had already retired from an acclaimed competitive career and transitioned to coaching when, last year, she had a revelation from an unlikely source: a Taylor Swift concert.

“It was Aug. 31 and it was a favor to a friend who didn’t want to go alone, and I was not super excited to be there,” she admits.

But sitting in the crowd, watching Swift — who is the same age as Johnson — perform to a sold-out arena, “it sort of was this crazy epiphany,” Johnson says.

“For her to be in that sage of her career … and still be growing,” Johnson realized: “I could do it too.”

Still, she knows she’s an underdog competing alongside American climbers who are often a decade younger than she is. But she’s been heartened by messages of support when she announced she was coming out of retirement.

Johnson is unusual in her sport in another way: She is, in her words, one of the few — if not the only — openly LGBTQ professional climber. She met her girlfriend, Bree, in 2014 when Johnson was guiding Bree’s mother on a group outdoor climb. Though the two started out as friends, romance sparked when they both became single and ended up in adjoining states (California and Nevada). Johnson calls it “a crazy whirlwind.”

Bree, who joined Johnson for her PEOPLE interview, has been happily by her side for all that an Olympic hopeful must endure: the meal prep, the gym time, the travel.

“I know the sacrifices she’s made to support me in this and that she understands this could be a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Johnson says. “And as soon as I’m done with this, whatever she wants to do, we’re going to do that.”

Johnson says her decision to go public with her relationship was spur of the moment, spurred by one of the kids she was coaching who was being bullied for being queer. Johnson wanted to show the girl she was not alone.

“Helping just her feel better about herself [was] awesome, but I keep getting all these messages that are heartwarming,” Johnson says.

“Doing it for that reason alone is enough,” she says.

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Erik Kynard

Kynard, from Toledo, Ohio, was 21 years old when he won a silver medal in high jump at the 2012 Games.

But afterward, he was right back in school at Kansas State University, finishing up a business degree: an Olympic medalist standing out (and standing tall — Kynard is 6-foot-4) in the student body.

“When you are the Michael Jordan where you’re from or at your university, you lose that anonymity associated with being 21 years old or 22 years old,” he tells PEOPLE, “and it’s a huge step into adulthood and the light of responsibility and not just representing your family or your own self but your country.”

Four years later, in his return trip to the Summer Olympics, Kynard disappointed, placing sixth. But he doesn’t see another shot at the Games as a comeback, exactly.

Asked what it would mean to be a three-time Olympian, he says this:

“It won’t mean much, honestly, because I can’t allow myself to be limited to even my own accomplishments. It’s kind of like — you get the canvas, you draw the art and then there’s the masterpiece, now I’m moving on, what’s next? Because if not, you’ll be sitting back talking about something you drew or something you did eight years ago or four years ago and you’ll never accomplish anything else.”

“2020,” he says, “is brand new.”

“I’m like a grown man now,” he jokes. “I got a little goatee going on, a little beard, got a little bass in my voice.”

He’s matured, he says — not quite the fiery Olympic newcomer he was seven years ago — but he’s no less competitive (with the split-second ability to rattle off how many minutes and seconds he has in each day to work). His jumping he calls “a gift from God.”

There is time for a personal life as well. Should he make it to Tokyo, maybe he’ll have a girlfriend to bring along with him, he says playfully.

One person unlikely to join? His mom.

“She thinks I’m going to break my neck, even still … I’ve won like nine national titles and she closes her eyes,” he says. “I can’t justify the plane ticket if you’re going to close your eyes.”

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Tom Schaar

“We’re kind of all like the test dummies here,” Schaar, a 19-year-old X Games medalist in skateboarding, says of the class of top American skateboards now poised to compete in the Olympics for the first time.

But “first time” is not an unfamiliar description for Schaar: He was the first skateboarder to successfully land a 1080 — or three complete rotations in the air. He was 12. That same year, he became the youngest-ever X Games champion with a win in Shanghai.

Speaking about his accomplishments, Schaar, from Malibu, California, can sound amusingly low-key.

“I really didn’t know what was going on, honestly, I was just skating,” he says of his success as a 12-year-old. “I went to the contest and landed what I wanted to do, and they for some reason gave me first.”

But even he admits that nailing the 1080, on his fifth try, was “the biggest shock.” (The resulting appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show was a bit anxiety-inducing, he told ESPN at the time: “I was trying to get used to [being on national television]. It was weird though.”)

Schaar says that when he’s on a board, everything else kind of fades out — he doesn’t listen to music; he doesn’t have to cut through the chatter of his own thoughts. He’s mild about a focus fellow skateboarding champion Bucky Lasek once called “second to none.”

“I don’t know why, but when I skate I can’t really hear anything else,” Schaar says.

“I feel pressure for every contest, but I think it’s good,” he says. “If you’re not feeling any pressure, you probably shouldn’t be a competitor. It’s kind of the whole point.”

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Ashima Shiraishi

An 18-year-old who has been hailed as “the most talented rock climber in the world,” Shiraishi, from New York City, got her start in climbing the way many young children do: in the park.

“I started climbing in Central Park when I was 6, and just having fun at the park on those little boulders and soon I was doing it every day and it was just an obsession and then I started traveling for it and then competing and now I’m here,” she tells PEOPLE.

That’s one way to put it.

Shiraishi was 13 when she became the first female climber and youngest climber to finish a climb called Open Your Mind Direct, one of the most difficult in the world, according to The New Yorker.

Months later, she became the first female climber to finish the “legendary” Terre de Sienne climb.

“I shocked myself,” she later wrote on Instagram.

She tells PEOPLE: “I think that the feats that you can accomplish in climbing are very personal and when you have certain goals that you set for yourself and are at your very limit and then you’re actually able to overcome those battles, it’s like — the things that human beings live to do, like overcoming challenges that you thought were impossible. So I think that’s something that gives me bliss.”

When she’s climbing, “I’m not thinking too much, I’m just thinking about each move and the next movement that I’m going for,” Shiraishi says.

But she always has her next goal in mind. In Tokyo, should she qualify, she will compete in a modified form of competitive climbing that blends three disciplines together, awarding the best overall climber rather than someone who excels at one over the other two. It’s an unusual approach, out of deference to climbing’s newness as an Olympic sport. But the spotlight has gotten brighter in recent years — both on her and on climbing overall, with the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo last year helping drive interest.

“Climbing is definitely blowing up at the moment and it’s cool to see that,” Shiraishi says. She appreciates how diverse the community is becoming, how far climbing gyms have spread.

She shrugs off questions about how others in the sport have received her success at her age.

“I think people are surprised when I do certain things, but it’s not like the opinions of other people  affect me too much.”

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Brighton Zeuner

It was 2017 and Brighton had just turned 13 (literally just — the day before) when she won her first X Games gold in skateboarding, in Minneapolis.

“I said, ‘Alright, I’m not going to think about it,’ and it happened,” she tells PEOPLE.

The next year, at 14, she did it again.

Born in Encinitas, California, Brighton says she got “into skating because of my older brother, Jack. He was always skateboarding, and I just thought it looked really cool.”

It was creative, it was fast and it drew her in.

At 8, “it first kind of clicked for me,” she says. Three years later, she competed in her first X Games, earning fourth. In the intervening years, her family had moved to Southern California where she was energized by the skating scene.

Even with her wins since then, Brighton, now 15, says, “For me, contest skating isn’t about winning.”

“You have a whole audience watching … you should make it exciting, so my goal is to get a safety run first run and then try to put on a show for everyone — go as fast as you can and try your hardest tricks,” she says.

Maybe the best is when the other skaters in a competition give it all they can as well, and the audience gets to watch as the top spot swaps back and forth.

Brighton has been skating for nearly half her life (which is, still, not even a decade) and she doesn’t imagine she’ll stop anytime soon. It’s a competition and an outlet, but it’s also opened up her life.

“Skateboarding’s something I love and everything I do in the future, it’s probably going to be because of skateboarding,” she says.

“If I inspire girls or be a role model, it’s great, because I know I was definitely under the influence of many, many older girls and I know how it felt to really look up to someone and still do,” she says before adding, “But I try not to put myself over people.”

“I just want to be Brighton.”

To learn more, visit teamusa.org. The Tokyo Olympics begin in one year on NBC.

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