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Olympian Billy Mills, long may he run

This is the second installment in a series about Billy Mills, the hero of the 1964 Olympics Games in Tokyo, Japan, winner of the Gold Medal in the 10,000 meter run. Mills, a Native American hero, has, arguably, accomplished the single greatest track and field victory in this country's history and has gone on to accomplish far greater victories.

Billy Mills was a two-time All-American in cross country for Kansas University (1958 and 1959), the 1960 Big Eight Conference Cross Country Champion and a member of the legendary 1959 and 1960 KU NCAA Championship track teams. He was a two-time Big Eight champion in the two-mile run, his then track specialty, running a career best of 9:17.4 in 1961. He was good; make no mistake, contributing importantly to two NCAA championships for Kansas. But he was never an All-American in track, where his destiny awaited. It's not fair to call him an underachiever at this point, but he wasn't the best either. He was not projected for glory necessarily. But he was destined for it.

After graduating from Kansas in 1962 with a degree in education, Mills joined the Marines as a commissioned officer. He kept running, kept following his passion, quietly harboring the dream of the Olympics. Stationed in Quantico, Va. he met Earl "Tommy" Thomson, the track and field coach at the Naval Academy who was helping out the Marines in his spare time. Thomson, a Canadian, was the Gold Medal winner in the 110 hurdles in the 1920 Olympics held in Antwerp, Belgium. He eventually coached at Annapolis for some 30 odd years. He was also completely deaf.

Thomson watched young Lieutenant Billy Mills training. Then, showing a trait shared by many of the hearing impaired, he patiently watched some more. And then he approached Lt. Mills. "He said to me," Mills recalls, 'I don't want to be your coach. But if you let me inside you, really let me in down deep, I'd like to be your mentor.' He was the first non-Indian man I ever truly let close to me.

"Coach Thomson asked me 'What do you want to do at the Olympic games? It's time we discussed this.' All along my goal was to get there but I barely was able to acknowledge that goal, except to my wife Pat and even then not really powerfully. So I said to him, I want to make the Olympic team and I want to run 28-50 (28 minutes and 50 seconds in Mills' best distance, the 10,000 meters). And he said to me, 'Why 28-50?' And I got really defensive. I thought he was saying I couldn't run that fast. And the odd thing is I was downplaying what I really thought I could do. I kept a piece of paper in my wallet on which I'd written 28-25. Then he asked me what's your goal? And I said, boldly for me, I want to win a medal. And he said, 'A medal?' And I got defensive all over again. I thought he was saying I had no chance for a medal. 'If you only want a medal, you'll be fifth at best.' And then I realized what he was saying. He was saying he believed in me. And he was challenging me to follow my passion, follow my dream, all the way. Which is what my father had taught me all those years before.

"You know what Tommy Thomson did for me? He helped me begin a slow journey to the center of my soul. And that journey ended up with a Gold Medal. Lots of that journey was about free will, my effort. But it was also God given. Tommy Thomson was God given to Billy Mills."

Other people helped. One of them, Alex Breckenridge, did it by being honest. He was on the 1960 Olympic team as a marathoner. When Mills joined the Marines he and fellow runner/officer, Breckenridge, started training together. "And I could stay with him," Mills remembers. "Kind of surprised me. One day we were on a 25 mile run and I asked him how he thought he'd do in the upcoming Olympics. 'I have a slim chance and that's it,' he said. We kept running and I remember the only sound was the pounding of our feet. After another half mile I gathered up my courage and asked him how he thought I'd do. Another half mile went by before he answered. 'You'll beat me,' he said. Hearing that was weird and uncomfortable feeling. We were friends. But I had to deal with it directly. So I asked him Alex, do you have any objections if I try for the marathon? And a long time went by as we whipped along. And then he said, really quietly, 'No. But you'll beat me.' And I felt sad. But he was being really, really honest. Courageous if you ask me. I couldn't train any more with him. It was too uncomfortable. I made the team, and he didn't. And I'll always respect Alex for his guts, for saying an uncomfortable truth."

After months of work with Thomson, (mentored, not coached), after not even making the United States team for the prestigious U.S./USSR pre-Olympic track meet, Mills was selected for the U.S. Olympic team in both the 10,000 meters and the marathon. Mills would join 4,457 other competitors at the XVIII Olympic games in Tokyo, Japan from Oct. 10 - 24, 1964.

"In Tokyo four days before the Olympics started I was ending my training session. It was dusk and there was hardly another soul anywhere around. I'd had continuing doubts about how good my kick was and I just decided on the spur of the moment to run a 200 meters as fast as I possibly could. I walked over to the track and spotted a guy with a stopwatch. Turned out he was a German coach who spoke a little bit of English. I got across to him that I'd like to run a 200 and would he time me. He must have thought I was nuts. But he nodded and off I went. Maybe not the smartest thing I've ever done, running that hard so close to the race, but I just had to know what I had in my tank. Off I go and I was flying. I crossed the finish line and made the mistake of asking, How fast? He shook his head, and said, 'Slow.' You see, he thought I was a sprinter. My heart sank then I asked, what time? And he said, in a thick German accent, and I think I've got the time right or close, '23-20.' Anyway, it was the fastest 200 meters of my life. And I knew right there I had a shot. A real shot. It gave me a huge confidence boost. Who knows what would have happened if I hadn't walked over to that German coach? Life is a mystery, that's what I think."

The race did not set up very promisingly for Mills. Ron Clarke, of Australia, the world record holder, was the overwhelming favorite. He was a young legend, waiting to claim his fame. Mills was a cross country/marathon guy and ostensibly not remotely in Clarke's class as a track specialist. He wasn't even the American star that was the celebrated All-American Gerry Lindgren.

Four days later, on Oct. 14, 1964, in front of a crowd of more than 100,000 screaming fans, against the world's best 10,000 meter runner, Billy Mills ran his stupendous race. Twenty-five laps of 400 meters. True to predicted form the race did not start well for Mills. Australia's Clarke set a blistering, world record pace. But somehow after 5,000 meters he hadn't shaken Mills. At the bell lap they were side by side, and then Clarke pushed ahead, some say literally, and Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia followed. Mills was in third place, less than a lap to go, and his dream looked to be over. But it wasn't. With a stunning, almost surreal kick he came from behind. His glorious overdrive causing broadcaster Dick Banks to memorably shout, "And here comes Billy Mills!" It is one of the most famous sentences ever uttered in an Olympic broadcast, capturing perfectly the remarkable drama unfolding in Tokyo at the XVIII Games.

Mills kept coming, of course, winning in 28:24.4, a new Olympic record. "It was a humbling experience," Mills says softly, 39 years later.

In 1983 there was a movie made about Mills' life, titled "Running Brave," starring, in a luminous performance, Robby Benson. Seeing it today, 20 years after its debut, is to appreciate its political, racial and emotional nuances. Improbably, the casting of the handsome young Benson was inspired by a teen fan magazine that the Mills' daughters were pouring through. Pat Mills happened upon them, spotted Benson's picture and reported to her husband, "You have to look at this. Billy, he looks just like you."

"Thank God we picked Robby," says the film's producer Ira Englander, a Los Angeles lawyer who had been deeply involved in Indian causes, particularly health issues, for over 30 years. "Robby really, really wanted this part. He's an athlete, a fine one. He was wonderful. He understood what Billy Mills had accomplished. And he understands today what Billy has continued to accomplish. His acting was a brilliant, informed tribute to Billy the athlete and Billy the man."

(The final installment of the series will focus on the messages that Billy Mills imparts in his speeches and in his life and with the non-profit foundation, of which he is national spokesman, Running Strong for American Indian Youth.)

Frank Coffey, a former book, magazine and newspaper editor, is the author of 35 books, including four novels. His work includes "Sixty Minutes: 25 Years of Television's Finest Hour," "Why Do They Call it a Birdie?" and "Golfers on Golf." He packaged the best-selling baseball book "The Bronx Zoo" and Carl Waldman's award-winning books "Atlas of the North American Indian," "Who's Who In Native American History" and "Word Dance."