Skip to main content

The beautiful journey of Billy Mills

LAWRENCE, Kan. – On a bus headed to Olympic stadium where he would run the race of his life, a young American Indian athlete from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation sat next to a beautiful woman. She asked him who would win the race. With as much bravado as he could muster, he said, “I’m going to win it.”

“What’s your name?” the woman asked.

“Billy Mills,” he said.

Little did the woman know how famous this young man was about to become.

The year was 1964; the place: the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. Mills, an Oglala Lakota from one of the poorest communities in the United States, was about to run in the 10,000 meter race for a shot at an Olympic gold medal.

Dressed in slacks, a lavender shirt and tie and looking healthy and fit at age 71, Mills recalled his journey through sports at the Haskell Cultural Center at Haskell Indian Nations University June 10. “As I look back, what a beautiful journey I’ve had.”

Mills credited sports for giving him the tools to succeed in life. He urged Haskell officials not to cut athletic programs from the Haskell budget, saying sports build character and teach creative thinking.

“I learned responsibility and accountability through sport. Sports, properly taught, are so empowering.”

At a young age, Mills already knew the pain of a broken heart. He was eight years old when his mother died.

“Son, you have broken wings,” Mills’ father would say one day as they fished together. His father took a stick and drew a circle in the dirt. He told his son to stand inside the circle and look into his heart. Billy felt his heart pounding with anger, jealousy and self-pity.

“All these emotions will destroy you,” his father said.

To heal himself, he told Billy he would have to find a passion in life. “I hope you’ll try sports, son.”

When Mills was nine, he read his first book on the Olympic Games. One of the lines in the book captured his imagination: “Olympians are chosen by the Gods.”

The words fueled Mills’ inspiration to become an athlete and gave him hope he would one day see his mother again.

Three years later, when Billy was 12, his father died.

Now orphaned, Mills would continue to battle the demons of depression and despair. “Twice in my life, I was going to give up.”

At one point, he contemplated suicide by jumping from the window of a building. But as he was about to jump, he heard the word “Don’t” repeated four times.

The thought of his father, he said, stopped him from jumping.

Mills’ journey took him to Haskell Institute, where longtime coach, Tony Coffin, took him under his wing. “He became like a second father to me,” Mills said. Coffin taught Mills the importance of faith, family and sport.

In his sophomore year in high school, Mills found a job working on a grain elevator. He worked from 6 p.m. – 6 a.m. and slept in an abandoned car. During those days, he still devoted 45 minutes a day to running.

After graduating from the University of Kansas and a stint in the Marine Corps, Mills set his sights on the Olympics and the 10,000 meter run. “I made the choice to try to win that race instead of committing suicide.”

At the stadium just before the 10,000 meter race was set to begin, a phone call for Mills came through from Pine Ridge. It was his sister. She called to tell him folks are praying for him, but their conversation ends abruptly when the phone connection goes dead. Mills is heartened by the call. “Somebody back home is thinking about me.”

When the race began, Mills purposely let his competitors get ahead to save some kick for the finish. At the time, Mills was in the early stages of diabetes. With his blood sugar plunging, he thought of quitting several times as the race wore his body down. Finally, the last yards come. In the homestretch, he was shoved out of lane by two rivals.

“I learned responsibility and accountability through sport.” -Billy Mills, Olympic gold medalist and national spokesperson for Running Strong for American Indian Youth

As Mills recovered, he caught a glimpse of an eagle on another runner’s shirt. “I can win,” he said. “I can win.”

“It’s now,” Mills tells himself. “I’ve got to try to go now.” Even with 85,000 people screaming, “All I hear is my heart,” Mills said.

He made his famous move to the outside lanes and broke free. “Look at Mills! Look at Mills!” the announcer exclaimed.

In one of the most stunning upsets in Olympic history, Mills broke the tape to win the gold. “I felt so powerful. I felt that moment was a gift for me.”

Mills is still the only American to ever win an Olympic gold medal in the 10,000 meter run.

As the national anthem played, Mills heard his father’s voice. “My dad’s voice said, ‘Son, you can step out of the circle now.’”

On June 30, Mills will celebrate his 72nd birthday.

Lorraine Jessepe can be reached at