Billy Mills’s New Race

Billy Mills with Cheyenne River Sioux youth on the reservation in South Dakota. (Courtesy of Running Strong for American Indian Youth)

Billy Mills with Cheyenne River Sioux youth on the reservation in South Dakota. (Courtesy of Running Strong for American Indian Youth)

A highlight of the National Indian Gaming Association’s annual tradeshow and convention, held April 1 to 4 in San Diego, will be a special event with Billy Mills, 1964 Olympic gold medalist and the national spokesperson for Running Strong for American Indian Youth. He is scheduled to join Dr. Donna Galbreath, president of the Association of American Indian Physicians (AAIP), and Kickapoo Tribal Chairman Steve Cadue in raising awareness and funds for diabetes prevention in Indian country.

Cadue and Mills serve as honorary co-chairs of the AAIP Diabetes Plan, which works with “American Indians in underserved communities to reduce morbidity and premature mortality, and eliminate health disparities associated with diabetes,” according to a press release. It is a subject with which Mills is all too familiar. “I am a type 2 diabetic,” he said. “I was diagnosed as hypoglycemic and as borderline diabetic in 1963—one year before I won the Olympic gold medal.”

An Oglala Lakota (Sioux) raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Mills was orphaned at a young age. Feeling isolated, he contemplated suicide.

“My dad told me when I was small that I had broken wings,” said Mills, whose father passed away when Mills was 12. “He told me if I did various things, I would have the wings of an eagle. If I looked beyond the hate, the hurt, the jealousy, the self-pity, I would find it is the pursuit of dreams that heals.”

Mills called his chances of winning the 10,000 meter run “highly improbable,” but his father’s encouragement spurred him on. Nearing the end of the race, he appeared “obviously beaten in third,” recalled Runner’s World magazine. But he put on a last-minute sprint and became the only American ever to win gold in the event.

Mills’s twin dreams today are to continue address type 2 diabetes through his Running Strong program and the AAIP Diabetes Plan, and to tackle suicide prevention through his Running Strong for American Indian Youth program, Running Strong for Right Choices. It will, he said, take the dedication and determination of the entire Native American community to defeat both scourges.

“We, as a people, have the world record for type 2 diabetes. We are also rapidly acquiring the world record for the number of our young people who have taken their lives. So those two issues have to be major factors in our total communities, involving our enterpreneurial enterprises,” Mills said. “The businesses today, whose mission statement is value-based—legally, ethically and morally, and everyone commits to those values with social consciousness, all while protecting their bottom line—will become the brand names of the 21st century. That’s the legacy that Native American entrepreneurialship can leave to the world.”