It was late Thursday, June 28 when Michael Phelps came into the interview room at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb., site of the Olympic Swimming Trials.
The stadium was empty, except for late-deadline sportswriters, and as Phelps climbed the dais, in the blast of the massive air-conditioning stream, he shivered. It was cold. With the 100-degree scorcher outside, it seemed somebody had flipped the switch to "Arctic."
Phelps began to answer questions conversationally, courteously, like a normal American young man.
He was dressed in light warmup gear, and he hugged himself. He stopped.
"Sorry, I can't even think right now," he said, half-grinning. "It is freezing in this place. And I just got out of a 48-degree ice bath!"
Everybody cracked up. The frozen air had led some media creatures to put on hoodies. I was in shorts and a T-shirt, shaking.
But the moment showed that this supreme athlete -- the greatest swimmer ever, a human still evolving from a fish with a chance to move his gold-medal total to where it never will be touched -- is a regular dude.
And that's the magic.
That's what we want from our heroes, the transcendence with roots in humility, in humanity. The 16 Olympic medals Phelps owns, the eight golds he won at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the 13 years of being on the top looking down, none of it has slackened his thirst. And we love that.
As long as he's a gentleman.
This is not to imply that Phelps uses, or ever has used, illicit performance-enhancing drugs. But these are the Olympics. We know what fame and riches are at stake, and we know our ever-so-human, dubious past.
Why, there was All-American girl Jessica Hardy making the U.S. team in the 100-meter freestyle, just four years after she won the 100 breaststroke at the Trials and was disqualified after testing positive for the banned substance clenbuterol.
My own thoughts are rife with Olympic cheating. I remember talking to Tyler Hamilton, a U.S. bicyclist, and thinking what a nice guy he was -- before he was banned from the sport for flunking multiple drug tests.
Short, broad-shouldered, pasty-faced cheater Michelle Smith of Ireland broke my heart at the 1996 Games in Atlanta when she turned out to be half-loaded up on ... Irish whiskey.
Marion Jones, Justin Gatlin, Dwain Chambers, Ben Johnson, all those East German women, that little "Pocket Hercules'' dude from Greece, the cheating, testosterone-laden weightlifter who said at the 2004 Games in Athens, "I want to declare to the Greek people that I swear to God, to my two little angels, my children, that I never took any such substances.'' (He did.) The list just goes on.
And sweetness or charisma seems to have little to do with it.
Maybe my biggest disappointment came in 2004 at the ancient venue of Olympus, the place of antiquity, where female athletes never had been allowed to compete. The first to do so, shot-put champion Irina Korzhanenko from Russia, promptly had her gold medal stripped after she tested positive for steroids.
I am new to the Twitter world, but one of my first tweets was to disgraced former BALCO drug guru Victor Conte. He was complaining that there are too many elite Jamaican sprinters from too small a populace and too small an island for them to be clean.
"So what is their sauce? Don't tell me you don't know.''
Conte: "I've heard some may be using my old protocols.''
Telander: "You had former world champ Kelli White so greased she said she felt like 'an animal.' ''
Conte: "Double gold and busted.''
Telander: "Tests still no good? Athletes bolting Olympic Village like Greek sprinters in Athens 2004?''
Conte: "Many micro-dosing synthetic testosterone & under radar."
That's from the brewing witch himself.
So all we can hope for is that ethics and detection and threats of shame take their place. It's terrible to watch heroes through the squinted eyes of brute cynicism. But even that's better than getting fooled again. And again.
Which brings us back to Phelps. Stay clean, young man. Same for you, Ryan Lochte. And you'll have a place in our hearts forever.