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Billy Mills delivers a message of empowerment, hard work

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HURON, S.D. - Billy Mills, 1964 Olympic Gold medalist, again donned a borrowed pair of shoes in a run that was part of Native American Day at the South Dakota State Fair.

The Pine Ridge native, whose 10,000-meter victory in Tokyo 27 years ago was considered the biggest upset in Olympic history, won that race wearing a borrowed pair of shoes.

The world-class runner, now in his 60s, borrowed shoes from a local storeowner Jerry Osborn an hour before the Huron event because his luggage had been lost during the flight to South Dakota.

Osborn's only request was that Mills autograph the shoes before returning them.

Mills joined nearly 50 walkers and runners for a fun run Aug. 3 before delivering a motivational talk at the fair to young people, many of whom participated in the run, including a group from Our Home, a treatment facility for troubled youth.

Mills said the circumstances surrounding his 2-mile fun run paralleled his experiences during his magic moment in history. Mills' story was told in the movie "Running Brave".

"At the Olympic games I had to get my shoes the night before and this time I had to get my shoes an hour before," said Mills, who grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Mills delivered a message of empowerment, hard work and hope to a crowd of nearly 400 people in a humid auditorium at the state fair.

"Everybody has a God-given gift within them, they just have to have the free will, passion, perseverance to pursue it and accomplish it.

"When you accomplish it, it is humbling, because you did nothing. You just pursued and fulfilled a God-given gift."

During his pursuit of the gold medal, Mills said he used the self-empowerment technique he learned at an early age from his father to overcome all odds.

For Mills the last lap of the 10,000-meter run was perhaps life's smallest challenge because he was given a gift for running. As he ran the race as a virtual unknown, it seemed overwhelming, he said.

"The last lap, I was pushed into the third lane, I stumbled and I almost quit. I came back on the lead man's shoulder. He pushed me back out. I stumbled again and almost fell," Mills said.

"Momentarily I was going to quit, but only because I empowered my mind over four years, 100 times a day, 1,000 times a week - visualizing imagery that at one moment in time, the body mind and spirit worked as one - I couldn't quit.

"All I said was just one more try, one more try, I'm going to win, I'm going to win," Mills said.

Rounding the final curve, Mills said he saw the tape stretched across the finish line and with 30 yards left to go his thoughts changed from "I'm going to win" to "I won, I won, I won."

"At that one fleeting moment in time, you're the very best in the world. You can't describe it. You feel it. I hope someday everybody has the opportunity to reach within himself or herself and pull out a very special gift that they have and fulfill it," he said.

Mills encountered negative perception much of his life. When he arrived to compete in Japan, the U.S. Olympic Committee refused to give him shoes for the race. He was told there were only enough shoes for those who were expected to do well.

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With a pair of borrowed shoes, Mills stunned the world with a powerful come-from-behind victory.

Not only was he the first Native American to win the race, but he was the first American to win it.

"It was a diverse group. I think I was able to capture their souls and it was a positive, beautiful experience," Mills said. "It was a change in perspective for them."

Mills had to overcome tough odds. He struggled to find his identity and dealt with prejudice from both groups of people whose heritage he claimed. Part Oglala Lakota and part white, he was called a "mixed blood." He was orphaned at age 12 and running became his respite, a way of life on the Pine Ridge reservation, Mills said.

"On a typical day we were biking, walking or running an average of 50 miles a day just to play.

"It was just the lifestyle. I went biking 15 miles just to go fishing, 30 miles round trip." Running helped him escape the pain and emptiness he felt, he said.

He received a scholarship to the University of Kansas, where he was a three-time All-American runner.

Leaving the Pine Ridge reservation to attend college was one of the most terrifying times of his life. "I experienced more cultural shock going from Pine Ridge to the University of Kansas and rejection than I have in the now 83 different countries."

Mills works toward bringing about unity through diversity across the nation with the charities and organizations he helps support. Attending the state fair for the first time, he said Native American Day was the beginning of an opportunity to build a bridge toward unity.

"We're not doing that in America. We're not looking at unity through adversity and the fair has an opportunity to start building an infrastructure in communication, dialogue to build unity of the beauty of diversity, and throughout the community as well."

Mills, who lives near Sacramento, Calif., travels throughout the nation encouraging American Indian youth with his messages and hoping to assist them in making better choices.

He told the crowd of a young man who joined a gang and then paid horrible consequences including the loss of a loved one to escape membership in the gang. The Los Angeles youth, American Indian and part black, told his fellow gang members he couldn't kill anyone, Mills said.

Gang leaders warned him if he chose to quit, someone would die in return for his release from the gang.

Happy to be allowed to quit the gang, he went home and awaited the phone call telling him he was free of them.

Mills said the boy prayed over his happiness to be free of the gang, not for the person whose life was about to end.

The boy received the call telling him someone had died and he was relieved. A short time later, his mother received a phone call from the city morgue, asking her to identify the remains of her husband who had been gunned down by the gang members.

While many blame single-parent homes for the bad choices youths make, Mills said it is a perception.

Many of the parents are working hard to provide a positive environment for their children. "If you look at singe parent homes, you will find dignity, character, hope and you are going to find dreams."

Mills is the national spokesperson for Running Strong for American Indian Youth, a division of Christian Relief Services, which assists American Indian people meet their immediate survival needs while building self-sufficiency and self-esteem.