Living the Olympic dream in Rio

The opening ceremony begins at 7:30 p.m. Friday

A couple walks along Copacabana beach ahead of the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016. The iconic Copacabana beach will be the starting point for the road cycling race, marathon swimming and triathlon competitions during the Olympics. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

RIO DE JANEIRO (MEDIA GENERAL) — U.S. cyclist Brent Bookwalter is accustomed to competing against the best in the world, but the feeling in Rio as he prepares to race in his first Olympic Games is something special.

“I didn’t know what quite to expect and it wasn’t quite what I expected in the same,” Bookwalter, a Rockford, Mich. native, said.

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Cyclist Brent Bookwalter at the Athletes Village in Rio two days before the start of the Olympic Games.

“It’s really unique to be around all this diversity, not just people from all over the world, but like you said, the best athletes,” he continued. “And I think that inspires everyone. You can tell everyone is kind of buzzing. They’ve got a pep in their step.”

No one more so than swimmer Michael Phelps. He knows the drill of the Olympics — these are his fifth games. He’s already got 22 Olympic medals to his name (the most of any Olympian ever) but he still puts his body through the ringer for the chance to compete under the rings and everything they represent.

Michael Phelps prepares a swimming training session in Rio on Aug. 2, 2016.
Michael Phelps prepares a swimming training session in Rio on Aug. 2, 2016.

“That’s something that’s really awesome, again, about the Olympics,” Phelps said. “Doesn’t matter who you are, you get to compete at the biggest level and we all have the opportunity to go out and represent our country.”

Phelps, a captain for the men’s swimming team, will be at the forefront of the U.S. contingent during Friday’s opening ceremony, carrying the American flag.

Nate Ebner was so inspired by the Olympic dreams that he put an NFL career with the New England Patriots on hold so he could play rugby for his country.

“It’s such a humbling thing to be able to put something like this on and know you’re a part of that has so much history behind it and is so unique,” he said. “I just truly feel blessed.”

The opening ceremony begins at 7:30 p.m. Friday. The games conclude Aug. 21.

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