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MORE THAN 3.5 BILLION PEOPLE—roughly two-thirds of the world’s population—are expected to tune in to watch more than 10,000 athletes make the XXVI Olympiad, opening on July 19 in Atlanta, the biggest ever. As a new generation of heroes emerges, we have wondered about the champions of Games past. How did they reach their individual summits, cope with hardships and, above all, redefine their lives after the closing ceremonies? To answer those intriguing questions, PEOPLE interviewed more than two dozen former Olympians, including the great Kenyan runner Kip Keino (page 76); swimmer Nancy Hogshead (page 78); and diver Greg Louganis (page 74).

A lifelong gymnastics fan, Houston correspondent Laurel Brubaker Calkins (who works with Bureau Chief Anne Maier) was thrilled to report on what she calls “an uninterrupted chain of gymnastics royalty that goes back 25 years”—gold medalists Olga Korbut, Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton, as well as Kim Zmeskal and newcomer Dominique Moceanu. “We have them in our memory as these hard-charging, flat-chested teenage dynamos,” says Calkins of Olga, Nadia and Mary Lou. “But now they’re women, curvy, with character lines. Yet, when they step up on the balance beam, the years peel away.”

Atlanta correspondent Gail Cameron Wescott, who has reported many of our Olympic stories, was especially impressed by the discipline of swimmers. “They all get up at 4 a.m. for years in the chilly dawn,” she says. “It’s inspirational, especially when you realize that many of them won’t make the Olympic team, sometimes losing a qualifying round by 1/100th of a second.” Although she admits to being completely nonathletic herself, Wescott says she’s thrilled to have a front-row seat at the Games. “My eyes welled up at the ceremony for the opening of Olympic Stadium,” she recalls of its dedication last May. “I’m very moved by the pageantry of it.” So, too, we expect, will be two-thirds of the planet, not least the memorable men and women updated in this issue.

The common ground between the editors of PEOPLE and our readers lies in the words we put on these pages. For many of the past 22 years the final authority on those words—their grammar, their spelling, their style, their punctuation and their clarity—was the head of our copy department, Nancy Houghtaling. So it is with great sadness I report to you that Nancy died last month at 58 after a long illness.

In 1974, Nancy closed the first issue of PEOPLE after working-31 straight hours. She called the effort “well worth it”—and that is exactly the kind of passion and professionalism with which she approached every issue of PEOPLE ever since. In her second tour of duty as copy chief, Nancy led her department into new technologies while patrolling the ramparts of the English language with a conviction and expertise that daunted its foes (and more than a few editors).

In the week before she died, Nancy attended a computer convention in Las Vegas and, during an off-hour, yielded to her enthusiasm for gambling and promptly won $1,000 in blackjack. Delighted, she went back to her room and celebrated with a room-service dinner. She was a winner that night, and that is the way we will remember her.