Billy Mills, Olympic Champion
“Look at Mills! Look at Mills!” the announcer yelled, in one of those moments when professional training is abandoned to the excitement of unexpected events. At the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Billy Mills won the gold medal in the 10,000-meter run. His victory was so startling that one of the first questions he was asked was, “Who are you?”
A good question. The Olympian had seemingly come out of nowhere, and his life’s journey was a story of rising from obscurity to world-famous legendary triumph. Born and raised on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the half-white, half-Lakota (Sioux) Mills grew up in poverty and was orphaned at the age of 12. Running provided a positive focus through high school and college, though it didn’t stop him from contemplating suicide after he was asked to step out of a photograph of his college All-American track team.
While serving as a lieutenant in the Marine Corps, Mills trained for 16 months for the Olympic track team. He qualified in both the 10K and the marathon, but he was an afterthought in a field of returning medalists and world-record holders, led by Australian Ron Clarke and Mohamed Gammoudi of Tunisia. Both pushed Mills during the final lap, but he darted past them with a late burst of speed that triggered one of the most thrilling finishes in Olympic track history.
No American had won the 10K before Mills, and none have won it since. His improbable victory inspired the 1983 film Running Brave, starring Robby Benson.
After the Olympics, Mills established more U.S. and world records in long-distance running. Today, he is a successful businessman and the national spokesman for Running Strong for American Indian Youth, a nonprofit organization that helps communities with self-sufficiency programs, youth activities, and cultural-identity projects. He and his artist wife, Patricia, now live in Fair Oaks, a suburb of Sacramento, California, where they own and operate The Billy Mills Speakers Bureau, 10K Gold Promotions, and Studio Tupos.
Cowboys & Indians: Your gold medal run was more than 45 years ago. How often are you asked about it?
Billy Mills: Oh, gosh, daily.
C&I: Clips of the race, including your amazing final lap, are now available online. When was the last time you watched it?
Mills: Probably six or seven days ago, on a plane. I was talking to this young female executive; she looked at my ring and said, “That’s nice.” I said it was from the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame. She said, “If you’re in there, I can probably Google you.” Then [she watched the finish] and said, “That’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen!”
C&I: Did you expect to win?
Mills: Four days before the Olympics I went to the practice track to do a few 200-meter sprints. No 10K runner would do that as a warm-up. But I wanted to find out what speed I could count on coming off the final curve. I felt if Clarke took the lead and set a fast pace and I could stay with the leaders, I had the speed to out-kick them at the finish.
C&I: Did the pushes from Clarke and Gammoudi make you more determined to win?
Mills: It was a distraction. I stumbled and I thought my quads were going to buckle. Initially I was going to take off after Clarke and push him. But then I thought, I have to get focused. You don’t want to win the battle and lose the war.
C&I: What made you believe you could win?
Mills: The first time I wrote down “Gold Medal in 10,000-meter run” was my junior year in college, when society broke me, after I was asked to get out of the team photo after I made All-American. I was going to jump from the sixth floor, commit suicide. Instead of jumping, I heard, “Don’t!” from the voice of my dad, who died when I was 12. “Don’t!” four times. Four is sacred to the Lakota — it symbolizes the four directions. And I got down and wrote “Gold Medal in 10,000-meter run.”
C&I: You’ve said that you felt your father’s spirit during the race.
Mills: On the final curve I’m going by runners and one steps out in front of me, a German. As I go by I look, and in the center of his jersey I saw an eagle. It reminded me of when I was a boy and my dad told me, “You have broken wings, but someday you can have wings of an eagle.” Now as I’m going by him I have the strange feeling my dad’s spirit was with me. After the race I found the German, and there was no eagle. I found out later it was on his warm-up jacket, which I had seen a week earlier.
C&I: How did the Native American community react to your victory?
Mills: Our tribal elders honored me with the Lakota name Makoce te’hila, which means “love your country.” One of the elders, Oliver Red Cloud, said, “I bet you got telegrams from all over the world.” I did. The first one I read was from Col. John Glenn, who had just orbited the earth. Oliver said, “While the rest of America sent telegrams, we took the sacred pipe and had a ceremony. We prayed to the four directions, to Mother Earth, to Grandfather, our creator, not that you would win, but that you would represent yourself with dignity. Because if you did, you’d represent the Lakota, and all of America, with dignity.
C&I: What does the gold medal mean to you?
Mills: My victory was a gift to me from the spirit world, from a higher power, but I orchestrated it, I choreographed it. When the ceremonies were over, I was on a plane with my wife, still overwhelmed by the gift. So if you feel you have been given a gift, what do you do? I went back into Lakota culture and gave back to the people who helped me. I decided I’d spend the rest of my life focusing on Lakota virtues and values. One way to do that was to take the inspiration given to me and pass it on to younger generations.
C&I: Why do you think the Olympics aren’t as big a deal now as they used to be?
Mills: That’s a very intriguing question. What you say has some credibility in America, but on a global basis the games are bigger than they have ever been. And that points out many things about us in America. We have been so sheltered from global issues — whether it’s sports, politics, economic development — we have not been plugged into that. We have this incredible opportunity to learn from a global basis to properly portray the leadership role that most of the world wants us to portray.
C&I: Now a gold medalist can endorse a track shoe and make $10 million.
Mills: That’s right. And I never owned a pair of track shoes until the night before the Olympics [Laughs.].
Issue: June 2011