Ever since man has been traveling through Franconia Notch he has been struck, at a particular bend in the road, by an astonishing visage peering out from the cliffs of Cannon Mountain. It is a great, rock head with a sharp chin, a distinct brow, searching eyes, evident inner strength. It is among the world's most perfectly etched, naturally made images of man. It is, in the region and even beyond, famous. Most call it the Old Man of the Mountain; Hawthorne called it, in his short story, the Great Stone Face. New Hampshire native son Daniel Webster was moved by it, and observed metaphorically that, just as a dentist might hang out a sign with a tooth on it, or a blacksmith might signal with a picture of a hammer, in the cold, rugged White Mountains, God Himself has hung out His shingle indicating that "there, He makes men."
New Hampshire, which fancies itself rough and tough, employs the Old Man of the Mountain as its state seal. But, speaking frankly, the Massachusetts commuters who live in Nashua, or the Vermont wannabes in the southwest, "Currier and Ives" region, don't bear much resemblance to the Old Man. They wear neckties on occasion, and tweeds in winter.
Natives of Franconia village itself are another matter. They know cold and sudden storms. They know the woods and the mountains. Franconians are what God was talking about when he formed the Old Man.
Bode Miller grew up in Franconia in a cabin without plumbing or heating, so we might say that his family was arguably taking this Old Man thing to an extreme. The kids of Franconia, whose neighboring Sugar Hill had one of the first rope tows ever built in the United States, learn to ski at a few different places, but principally on the flank of Cannon Mountain that is just to the north of the cliff that supports the Old Man. When they get good, they spend their late afternoons sucking up any available sun not a lot gets into the Notch on the wide, steep, bump-filled slopes that plunge to Echo Lake. These bombers, most of them in jeans and lots of them on ratty skis, do not care if they make a clean run or wipe out. They care only that they get in that essential post-4 o'clock run, and that they go fast.
Franconians make for great skiers and good, but not necessarily reliable, racers. They are, like their mountain, throwbacks to Old School skiing. They are in the hyper-daring ski-race tradition of Sailer, Killy, Russi, Klammer and the Mahres. A Skier as smooth as, say, Stenmark will never hail from Franconia.
Miller arrived in Salt Lake in the midst of a terrific campaign, but carrying the well-earned reputation as one who either won thrillingly or crashed and burned. In 2001, for statistical example, he failed to finish 13 of 24 internationally sanctioned races, yet made it on the podium four times. Earlier in this current season, his breakthrough year on the circuit, he won a giant slalom in Val D'Isere, France, one day, then drove all night and won a slalom in Madonna di Campiglio, Italy, the next day. Did we mention he fell in one run of the GS? He did. He fell, bounced up, kept going and won. That's Franconia skiing.
He fell in Salt Lake too, or at least bumped his butt during the downhill portion of the combined, his first event here. Going into the final, slalom portion of the race, he was thoroughly mired in the double-digits, no chance for a medal. Then he cranked a slalom run, dead straight through the flats, that left people gasping, and invoking Tomba and Phil Mahre.
He was seventh after the first run of the giant slalom, but by now no one was counting him out. He flew in run two, and had his second silver.
Next today came his specialty, the slalom. You all know that he did not win. Now we will tell you why his performance today, on top of the other two, but really in and of itself, makes him our choice for American hero of these Olympic Games.
As context, let's look, but briefly, at a few worthy contenders: Vonetta Flowers, the first black athlete, male or female from any country, to win winter gold; Jim Shea Jr., who overcame tragedy in his family (and a higher-ranked field) to clinch victory on the skeleton run; the snowboard boys, who swept the halfpipe medals; Sarah Hughes, of course.
We're checking the box next to Bode Miller.
As we say, it's hardly because of his silver medals, or the daring way he won them from back in the pack. It's not just because of his revolutionary approach to skiing, his willingness to try something new in the search for speed. Miller didn't care when he was mocked for using the shaped skis usually reserved for beginners. Franconians don't give a . . . a rat's pitootee about such chattering. They just ski faster than everyone else, and force other to either follow along or choke in their ice-chip trail.
It's certainly not because of his prodigious athletic talent in other sports, which led Miller to make some rather unfortunate statements this week (he suggested to a USA Today reporter that he could have made it to Ronaldo's level in soccer, or to the top of the ATP tour).
It's not because of his strange, if somehow ideal upbringing so far from the temptations of fame and fortune, in a New Hampshire cabin that, we're wagering, felt both very cold and very warm when the north wind blew through Franconia.
It's not just because of his graciousness, though this is a part of it. After skiing what he and others considered the race of his life in the giant slalom, he said gold medalist Stephan Eberharter was "one of the best racers in history."
No, the thing that tipped Miller over the edge for our vote was his performance in today's slalom.
As has been mentioned, it is his best event, and here in Salt Lake it was the one he was supposed to win. He stood second after the first run and, considering what Miller had delivered in final runs earlier in the fortnight, he looked like a lock.
But then, in the second run, he fell not once (a Miller staple) but twice (which no one can overcome), and dropped from second place to 25th.
In the disaster we find our hero. Just seconds out of the gate, Miller crashed, dashing his chances if burnishing his wipe-out-or-win legend. The capacity crowd at Deer Valley had hardly had time to get their cowbells clanging before Bode ate snow. But here's the thing. He got up. You can go down in GS or downhill and perhaps still medal, but not in slalom. No one knew better than Bode that he was cooked. But he got up. Although it was painfully obvious to all that he had no chance of a medal, he kept on skiing. And skied hard enough that he almost wiped out another couple of times. "It took a lot of work and I was really tired at the bottom here," he said afterwards. "But I have three finishes."
What a wonderful sentiment; it's right at the heart of the Olympic ideal, the bit about participating. "The important thing in these Olympiads is not so much winning as taking part." Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, said that more than a century ago. The Baron would have liked Bode. Here's a guy who is, in fact, going home with a pocketful of metal, but who feels he is going home with something else just as important: three finishes.
It took Miller a miserable 15.73 seconds longer than France's gold medalist Jean-Pierre Vidal to finish the slalom, and Miller's second run represented the third-worst in a field of 34 who finished. (This was not an easy course: 14 in the second run were DNF, and two others were DQ'ed.) But Miller finished when most others would have skied off the course. And he was proud to have finished.
You know what he was doing? He was dusting his jeans on Cannon Mountain and busting the moguls at the bottom of his 4:15 run, dusk closing down the Notch like a curtain.
Hey, okay: This wasn't a Herculean effort equivalent with that of Tanzanian marathon runner John Stephen Akhwari, who hobbled into Mexico City's stadium in 1968 more than an hour after the winner. Akhwari's leg was bandaged and it was obvious he was in excruciating pain. A reporter asked him why on earth he had not retired from the race, a question which perplexed him. "My country did not send me to Mexico City to start the race," he said. "They sent me to finish."
So Bode Miller's showing today wasn't equivalent with that. So what? In this corner, we're proud of Miller for finishing that race. America and New Hampshire should be proud of Miller too. No doubt they are.
Franconia doesn't even bear mentioning. Up there, in the village just above the Notch, they understand.