Billy Mills has always known winning the Olympic gold medal in the 10,000 meter-run at the 1964 Tokyo Games was a gift from the Creator.
Even today, 50 years after the fact, the Lakota elder, who spends 300 days a year on the road as the national spokesman for Running Strong for American Indian Youth, draws the same conclusion. “All I tried to do, what my dad would always say, was ‘Go in pursuit of a dream that heals a broken soul,’” Mills told ICTMN. “I came so close to suicide when I was in college, that I knew I needed a dream that would heal a broken soul. The dream became to be a gold medallist in the 10,000-meter run. I took the culture. I took our traditions. I took our spirituality and I extracted those values in whatever I did. To win the gold medal is very humbling. It’s a gift from the Creator.”
Like the story fires of olden time, Mills’ story has been told and retold as legendary deeds often are. Runner’s World lists it as the No. 2 story in the magazine’s 10 greatest moments in Olympic distance running history. Mills recalls a conversation he had with good friend and 1964 silver medallist Mohamed Gammoudi of Tunisia that put a new perspective to a historic moment.
Mills and his wife, Pat, attended the 2012 Games in London where they watched silver medallist Galen Rupp become the first American in 48 years to medal in the 10,000 meters. It was a far cry from 1964 when Billy had to take out a $1,000 bank loan to pay for Pat’s travel to Tokyo to be at his Olympic race. As they watched an American take the podium for the first time since 1964, he and Gammoudi discussed a day long ago. Gammoudi’s daughter Nadia served as the interpreter for the Lakota warrior and the African distance running pioneer.
“She told me, ‘My daddy was so, so happy for you,’ ” Mills recalled. “I asked why he was happy? I beat him. She said, ‘My daddy said that anybody that won in the manner that you did, it was your time. It was like a gift.”
Mills might have been an unknown when the race started, but by the bell lap the world knew he was for real. He moved up on the shoulder of race favorite Ron Clarke of Australia, who the world record holder at the time, as they started into the curve.
The field involved an insane number of 38 runners, so there were several stragglers that weren’t even on the final lap as the leaders jockeyed for position in the final 400 meters.
“I read in the paper that [Clarke] lost the Commonwealth Games the year before because he allowed himself to get boxed in,” Mills said. “Going into the bell lap, I moved onto Clarke’s shoulder and I could see about 10 yards ahead there were runners we were ready to lap. I accelerated to cut in and he accelerated not to let me cut in. So I thought I’d just stay right here and run him into the back (of a straggler), which is legal. He panicked and pushed me out. My quad buckled a little and I thought I was going to go down.”
The dream could have ended right there, but for the grace of the Creator. Mills regained stride, but stumbled out into lane 4 to stay on his feet. On the backstretch, Gammoudi made his move, cutting between Mills and Clarke to take the lead.
“When I saw Clarke push you, ‘My daddy said, poor Billy, he’s out of the race. My friend Billy’s out of the race,” Nadia said to Mills, conveying Gammoudi’s thoughts. “He’s off balance. Clarke’s off balance, I must strike now. My daddy struck, but you recovered. When you closed back on Clarke’s shoulder, you closed the window of opportunity for my daddy.”
Billy Mills at the 1964 Olympic Games.
Reports before the race said Clarke had everything to lose and Mills nothing to lose. But that wasn’t true. Mills was running for the Creator, running for the People, running for his own father, who taught him how to chase a dream. As a United States Marine and a Lakota warrior, his mindset after Clarke’s push was somewhere between “Oorah” and “Hoka, Hey.”
“I was angry. I wanted to hit somebody,” Mills recalled with a laugh. “But my main concern was that I was going into low blood sugar. I was diagnosed as borderline diabetic and hypoglycemic nine months before the Games. So I let them get 10 yards ahead of me before I’d make another try.”
Mills waited the entire back straight, knowing if he mistimed his final push his body would lockup and the dream would die 200 meters from the finish line. Gammoudi put the hammer down, sensing gold. Clarke had nothing left, but remained in second. Mills sat in third with an impossible task of running lane 2 to the tape.
“I came off the final curve and looked at a runner I thought was from Germany, as it turns out, was not. I thought I saw an eagle on his singlet,” Mills said. “To me it was like wings of an eagle and I heard my dad’s voice and thought I can win! I can win! I can win!”
Nadia Gammoudi said, “With 30 meters to go, my daddy and Ron Clarke went by some stragglers. Now lane 1 was open. My daddy’s in lane 2. Clarke’s in lane 3. My daddy glances back, no Billy. He looked to lane 3 and Clarke is fading back. My daddy is 30 meters (from a gold medal).”
The Lakota, who was pushed into lane 4, ran the entire back straight wavering from lane 2 to lane 3, overcame the effects of low blood sugar, still found a way to chase down the world record holder (Clarke) and his good friend Mohamed Gammoudi. Mills found another gear, and flew past Gammoudi and Clarke to victory. Mills' time was 28 minutes, 24.4 seconds. Gammoudi was second in 28:24.8, and Clarke was third in 28:25.8. Neither Gammoudi or Mills had ever run under 29 minutes. All three broke the Olympic record.
“You have been in my life since I’ve been a little girl,” Nadia told Mills as they sat in the Olympic stadium in London.
“I told her ‘Your daddy’s been in our daughters’ lives since they were little girls’,” Mills explained.
As Mohamed looked on, with his daughter expressing his thoughts to one of his closest friends, all was good. “My daddy said you are an American Indian and you were like an arrow being shot out of a bow,” she told Mills. “The way you won, it was your time. My daddy knew his moments would come.”
As with everything in life, Mills has earned his respect. He walks with dignity and humility and his heart, like his medal, is still golden 50 years later.