SALT LAKE CITY — He’s the one. The golden child. They all know it.

“C’MON BODE! . . .”

It’s the reason you saw a little more grit in their teeth as Bode Miller sliced down the giant slalom Thursday.

“C’MON, BODE! . . .”

You could almost hear their prayer as he neared the finish.

“PLEEEASE, BODE! . . .”

He’s the reason the U.S. ski coaches and managers and poobahs all leapt a little higher when his hungry, wolfish style gave them another minor miracle, a silver medal from the back of the pack.

“YES, BODE, YES!”

He’s the one. The latest messiah of American skiing. You can cheer if you want with NBC about the pile of medals America has collected in Salt Lake City. It certainly makes us feel good, but take away the ESPN2 sports — snowboarding, moguls, skeleton and short-track speedskating — and what you have in more traditional events (i.e. the ones that have been in the Olympics longer than five minutes) is a nice tally in speedskating (eight medals), a silver and bronze in luge, only one bronze from figure skating in anything besides ladies figures, a gold in the brand new women’s bobsled but nothing in the men’s, zero medals in any Nordic events — jumping, biathlon, cross-country, nothing
— and finally (and here’s the part that kills the folks on the mountain) one medalist in Alpine skiing, men or women.

Ode to Bode.

He’s the one.

“I was pushing it, I was almost perfect,” Miller said, after jumping from seventh place to the silver-medal podium with his second blitzkrieg run down the mountain. “I had a huge amount of time to make up on Stephan (Eberharter of Austria).”

He nearly did it. Skiing the fastest run recorded by any competitor Thursday, taking a straight line that other skiers shied away from or crashed trying to imitate, Miller leapfrogged four skiers and landed on the podium.

That, in itself, was critical. No American man had ever won an Olympic medal in giant slalom. Miller — with his miraculous comeback run last week in the combined event — now has two silvers, the entire medal count for the U.S. Alpine ski team.

He’s got his specialty, the slalom, on Saturday.

Hear the prayers?

A daredevil on skis

Now, understand that American skiing has been frustrated for years with its inconsistency. Why can’t we be better, we ask? We have mountains. We have athletes. We have plenty of snow. Some of our states are bigger than the countries that continually beat us on the hill.

Yet for every Bill Johnson downhill shocker in 1984, there’s a no-medals-total in 1988. For every Picabo Street, there’s an Olympics like this one, where all the American women finished out of the medals or crying after a heartbreaking crash.

Usually, when a nation hosts a Winter Games, its skiers perform better than ever. Not so this year. Which throws the halo solely on Miller, a tousled-haired Brett Favre look-alike from the mountains of New Hampshire, who talks with a slack jaw and skis with an iron one.

Sad to say, he is U.S. skiing’s last hope for their real dream of these 2002 Olympics: a magnet to draw some talent away from the football field or the halfpipe board.

He still has a chance. Here’s why:

First off, Miller is a daredevil. You might not like that, but your kid does. Miller skis every run as if second place means beheading. Instead of finding a smooth, rhythmic skiing pattern between the gates — you know, swoosh, swoosh, swoosh — he somehow “sees the line a bowling ball would take if you rolled it down,” says former gold medalist Phil Mahre. And that’s what he skis.

Of course, that’s a lot faster. And a lot harder. Which makes him crash a lot.

And win a lot.

Secondly, he’s not some ski-lodge aperitif holder, spending Daddy’s trust fund to make the squad. Miller grew up in the woods — literally the woods of New Hampshire, the son of hippie-ish parents who wanted open space, home school and a life of nature for their son. For years, their “house” had no running water or electricity.

Are you kidding? MTV will eat that up.

Finally, he wins. He wins at slalom, which is cool. And giant slalom, which is cool. He wins during the season, on the World Cup, so regularly that the Austrians have actually studied tapes of his blaze-it-then-save-it-style to see if they can steal something.

And, oh yeah. He’s 24. Good looking. Stubborn. Independent. And he really likes going fast.

What kid can’t relate to that?

Bode’s claim to fame

“I don’t know how many of you were here five years ago for my first World Cup ever,” Miller told a group of reporters after his performance. “I started 69th, and we had no Americans in the second round.

“I’ve come along way in five years.”

That’s exactly what the U.S. ski people want to hear, over and over and over. It’s all well and good that we’re scooping up medals in aerial flips and halfpipes. But there are two repercussions.

First off, we coined the zest for those sports. The rest of the world will catch up eventually. Secondly, the already small pool of potential Alpine and Nordic skiing hopefuls is now being depleted by the rock and roll of the X-Games.

That’s neither good or bad, unless you’re in Alpine skiing, in which case, it’s only bad. Nordic, right now, seems like a hopeless cause, too dull, too much sacrifice.

But Miller could do it for Alpine. Maybe. The right attitude, the right exposure, the right commercial, the right guest spot on “Friends.”

He has one more shot at gold, on Saturday. If he pulls it off with his normal frenzy, he might make some American teen say, “I want to be Bode Miller.”

The irony is, kids around the world are already saying it.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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