Indian Country Today
“There goes Billy Mills! Billy Mills pouring on the steam, Billy Mills is really putting it on. Billy Mills has the lead for the United States heading toward the finish line. Billy Mills has just won the men’s 10,000 meter event, the first time the United States has ever won this event!”
That was just one of many calls for the historic gold medal win for Billy Mills in the 10,000 meter race the last time the Olympics were held in Tokyo back in 1964. It was the first and only time an American has won the race.
Nearly 60 years after the amazing win, Mills, Oglala Lakota, joined the Indian Country Today newscast to look back on his life-changing achievement.
The former long-distance runner said it’s the journey, not the destination that empowers an athlete or individual to do great things.
“So whether I won the gold or not, the journey empowered me and I'd love our young people to understand that you've got to find the passion. You've got to develop the skills to equal the passion, bring them together and magic can be created,” Mills said. “And one or two of those magical things you do over your lifetime just may be looked upon as a miracle.”
Through the lens of history, Mills’ win is seen as a miracle he speaks of and one of the greatest Olympic upsets of all-time, as he was an unknown competitor to most entering the race.
Reminiscing on that historic run, Mills said he began to “hit the wall” with 110 meters left in the race as he started to feel a tingling sensation he attributes to having low blood sugar. Two things propelled him to the finish line; one was knowing the exact location of where his wife Patricia was sitting and the second was seeing another runner with an eagle on his singlet.
“It kind of reminded me of my dad when my mom died and my dad saying, ‘Son, you have broken wings and it takes a dream to heal broken wings,” he said.
Mills revealed that the dream he wrote down was to win the gold medal in the 10,000 meters when he was a junior in college.
As he made his final push, he remembers feeling the tape break across his chest and an Olympic official asking who he was. For a moment, he thought he miscounted the number of laps he had run.
“He [the official] says, ‘New Olympic champion, is there anything we can do for you?’” Mills recalled. “And I said, ‘I need my wife.’”
After the race, Mills went to find the runner with the eagle on his singlet only to learn that there was no other runner with such an image on their singlet, he perceived it himself. Mills said his training was based on Lakota values and he took the perception of the eagle, along with the pursuit of the gold medal, as all part of his journey to heal himself and the “broken wings” his father spoke of earlier in his life.
“I don't know how many Olympians have experienced, maybe similar circumstances, but mine was extremely sacred, just extremely emotional,” he said.
His race time of 28:24.40 would have been good for 18th place in these games, but that says more about the advancement of modern sports and athletics than anything else.
The race at this year’s games took place on July 30 and nearly had some late drama coming down the homestretch. Two runners from Uganda, Joshua Cheptegei and Jacob Kiplimo, who took second and third respectively, did their best to try and run down Selemon Barega of Ethiopia.
All three runners finished within one second of each other. United States runner Grant Fisher placed fifth, just over three seconds behind the gold medalist.
Naturally, Mills tuned into the race he will forever be known for and thought Fisher ran a smart race. He went on to say the race was exciting.
“In the humidity there was very difficult running, but I was thrilled with our young runner Fisher who got fifth,” Mills said. “I actually thought he had a chance to pick up a medal and I thought he ran a very intelligent race.”
Mills, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, is the co-founder of Running Strong for American Indian Youth nonprofit. In 1983, a movie based on the story of Billy Mills called "Running Brave '' was released. The movie is available to watch on YouTube.
Now in his 80s, Mills hopes to inspire Native youth the way Jim Thorpe was an inspiration to him. He finished his interview by reiterating it was the journey to the gold medal, not the medal itself, that means the most to him.
“The greatest gift my sports career has brought me was love of friendship, respect of other cultures, other societies, and believing together. We truly can create the horizon of humanity's future.”