When Billy Mills was a child on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, a Jesuit priest gave his father a book with a collection of articles. One of the entries said, “Olympians are chosen by the gods.” Mills wanted to become an Olympian, because he wanted to be chosen by the gods. “It had absolutely nothing to do with the Olympic games,” Mills, Oglala Lakota, said on the newest On Being podcast with Krista Tippett, a Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and New York Times best-selling author. On Being opens up the animating questions at the center of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live? In 2014, Tippett received the National Humanities Medal at the White House for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.”
The July 6 On Being podcast features Mills and Ashley Hicks, the Atlanta-based co-founder of Black Girls Run, among many other guests. It delves into “Running as Spiritual Practice,” exploring how running can serve as a connector across all kinds of boundaries in modern culture, as a source of bonding between parents and children and friends, as an interplay between competition and contemplation, and as a mode of comprehending body image and survival and healing.
Mills, who recently turned 79, won the gold medal and set the world record for the 10,000-meter race in the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Mills because the first American athlete to ever win an Olympic gold medal for the 10,000-meter race, and the second Native American to ever win an Olympic gold medal.
Orphaned at age 12 and raised by his grandmother, running eventually became a form of therapy and prayer to the Creator—and his connection to his late mother and father. Running was his solace. “I could feel my feet pounding against the earth. I could breathe in, and if the wind is blowing in the right direction, a quarter of a mile away, I could inhale the fragrance of the wild flowers, and it felt spiritual,” Mills told Tippett.
In college, at Haskell University, Mills came close to suicide. “Society was breaking me. I was caught between Plessy v. Ferguson, white and black America, equal but separate, being overturned with Brown v. Board of Education. So in many ways, if you were not a white athlete or a black athlete, you didn’t fit into this change that was occurring in America. If you were Latino, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, you didn’t really fit into that equation. I felt like I didn’t really belong, yet I was facing racism when I made all-American,” Mills explained.
One night, Mills felt his father’s voice, loud and clear, talking him off the edge of taking his own life. He recalled his father’s message to him in his youth: “You have to look deeper, way below the anger, the hurt, the hate, the jealousy, the self-pity, way down deeper where the dreams lie, son. Find your dream. It's the pursuit of the dream that heals you.”
Mills realized that he had a divine gift, and it was his obligation to use it. “The Creator has given me the ability. The rest is up to me. Believe, believe, believe, believe. And what I did, I took the Native American culture, tradition, spirituality—they became the core of my Olympic pursuit, giving me confidence, direction, and a clarity of mind to make a positive decision and stay the course.”
On the last leg of his Olympic race, Mills believed he saw an eagle on the back of the jersey of the runner ahead of him in lane 5. He again heard the voice of his father, who told him, “Son, some day you can have the wings of an eagle.” That’s when he realized: “I can win, I can win, I can win.” And then he felt the finish line ribbon break across his chest.
Winning the gold medal was one goal. “But the number one objective of my Olympic pursuit was to heal a broken soul,” Mills said on On Being. “I know what it is to be broken, but I also know what it is to be on a healing journey. You feel you’re never healed, but the journey is a lifetime.”