Olympic Gold heals a broken soul
Indian Country Today
Fifty-six years ago a young Lakota runner shocked the Olympic world when he came from behind to win the 10,000-meter race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Today Billy Mills, Lakota, remains the only American to win the gold medal in this event. He had planned on traveling to Japan this year to watch the 10,000-meter race, but then the pandemic hit and postponed the Olympics. Billy Mills is our guest today. He talks about his personal struggles as he trained for the Olympics and then what it meant when he took the gold.
Here are a few of his comments.
"It seems like it just happened. And the reason why, I etched into my mind, my body and my soul starting about two years before the Olympic games, that one moment in time and it is so powerful there today, simply because I didn't seek to win a gold medal. All I wanted to do was to heal a broken soul."
"I think growing up mixed blood I didn't really belong in the full blood world nor did I belong in the white world, but I knew no white relatives. So my heart and soul was in the Lakota world."
"And my dad was preparing me in his own way. Then he died when I was 12 and I was thrust into the dominant society, totally unprepared for what I call today, the footprints of the doctrine of discovery - manifest destiny. This land is a gift to the European immigrants from God, slavery, Jim Crow, the new Jim Crow today, the war on drugs, those footprints are not understood in America but they created generational trauma and generational privilege. And I can articulate that today but when I was a child growing up, it just provided a world that I didn't feel I belonged."
"I didn't understand what was happening to me when I ran, I could be emerging elite and then I'd fall apart, maybe 400 yards, 300 yards from the finish and found out 13 months before the Olympic games that I was type two diabetic. I was called pre-diabetic but hypoglycemic and I'd go low blood sugar."
"If you go low blood sugar, there's a quiet form of depression that comes with it. And that form of depression also facing the racism of the day, brought on suicidal thoughts. I didn't belong. And I was too immature to understand that."
"My dad told me, 'It takes a dream to heal a broken soul,' so I was going to create my own dream but that was to heal a broken soul. And I'd find a passion to do that. I enjoyed the outdoors, I enjoyed running, so running and the Olympics and trying to win a gold medal, became the catalyst to heal a broken soul."
"The favorite memories would be at Camp Pendleton, not knowing at the time that that land also was the sacred lands of the Pechanga and a couple other California tribal nations. And when I would run out in those Hills that was their sacred lands. I felt empowered."
"I truly felt that that the spirit world was with me. I'd have no idea why I felt that way until years later, I was talking to one of the tribal leaders at Pechanga and they simply said, 'Billy, you were running on our sacred lands. And perhaps our ancestors and some of yours were there encouraging you. That's part of the real sacred highlights of my running career."
"That's the memory I try to forget! I was in New York City at the pre-Olympic trials, wanting to qualify in the 5,000, the 10,000 and the marathon for the games. And I went low blood sugar blacked out. I don't even know if I finished!"
"And it frightened me, the first time I came so close to just letting the dream go. I decided 'You better take care of your health. You're basically type two diabetic. You go low blood sugar, no doctors can tell you what to do. I need to protect myself.'"
"And Patricia simply said that evening without me telling her what my thoughts were, she said, 'Don't you think we should start getting my airline ticket and my hotel reservations made in Tokyo?' So I did. I went and borrowed the money from the bank. That's $800 to get her airline ticket, her lodging, et cetera, than I felt, 'I'll never be able to pay this back.'"
"I went on a 25 mile run, every step of the way, my feet pounding on the earth, 'Do I need Patricia there to win?' And went back. Actually I took the money back to the bank. So I went back and borrowed the money again and started the process of getting her ticket to go."
"But that solidified the commitment. It was etched into my mind, my body, my soul, and I made a commitment. And she was with me, she was about a part of the team. And from that point on almost every thought throughout the day was the objective gold medal, 10,000 meter run. Not to become an Olympian but to learn how to live with my total being half Lakota, half white, and be able to deal with who I am as an individual and try to make a contribution to the world."
"She gave up her art career at that time to help me pursue my dream. So I knew that I had, in some way, I had to give back to her, like she's given to me."
"I go to get my track shoes. Adidas was the sponsor. The U.S. representative said, 'We have shoes just left for the potential medal winners.' So I said, 'But I'm going to win.' And he escorts me out the room. A reporter stopping me saying, 'You're the, you're the American Indian?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'I'm Indian from India.' We talked about Jim Thorpe. And he said, 'How do you think you're going to do?' I said, 'Don't tell anybody, but I'm going to win.'"
"I took the lead, picked up the pace. Ron Clarke took the lead again, then he slowed it, we're halfway through the race. That was such a powerful moment for me. My thoughts were, I'm going to be with him to the final stretch. I'm going to be with the leaders to the final stretch, two laps to go we break the fourth runner. There's three of us left."
"So then I knew it's going to come down to who makes the move first. Who's that? Who is that going to be? And then 300 meters to go I'm pushed out. I stumbled. I closed back on their shoulder and I'm going low blood sugar, just a tingling sensation, vision. You can't go from A to B in thought. And coming off the final curve, one more try."
"That's where my dad, when I was a little boy would tell me, 'Son, you need to find a passion. You need to dream. Develop the talents. Bring them together. Boom, magic happens!" He had me believing I could create magic then he died. My world came, crumbling down."
"85 meters to go. I pass a runner. I look at the runner, I'm passing there's the eagle on his singlet. That was my dad saying, 'Some day son you could have wings of an Eagle' and it was so powerful and so magical. So sacred. 'Wings of an eagle, I can win! I'm going to win!'"
"I won, I won...an official came up and said, 'New Olympic champion.' And I go, 'Do I have one more lap?' And he said, 'New Olympic champion.' I said, 'number one!?' And I find that guy with the Eagle on his singlet, there's no Eagle."
"I healed a broken soul and in the process I won an Olympic medal.'"
"I wanted to give back and create a really strong American Indian youth (program). Now we connect homes on the reservation to the main water line so they can have a shower. They can have hot water for cooking, bathing, drinking, et cetera."
"Billy Mills Running Strong program co-founder we have the Dream Starters program, any young person that has a dream that can empower their community. We have a program for them to help support them."
"We have what I call...Run with Billy. Pat and I are going to walk, jog a mile, maybe the 5k, but there's a 10k."
Phil Deloria, Yankton Dakota, is a professor of history at Harvard University. His book, "Indians in Unexpected Places," traces the history of American Indian athletes who excelled in the world of sports at the turn of the century. He talks about Mills' place in American history. Here are a few of his comments:
"This book actually started as an essay about Native American athletes. And it actually started with me thinking about my grandfather's athletic career. He was an honorable mention all-American football player in 1922."
"And actually, there was a moment where I was giving a public talk, I would ask people, 'Hey, name an Native American athlete,' and everybody raises their hands and they say Jim Thorpe."
"And then I would say, all right, name another Native American athlete and not quite so many hands. And then people would say 'Billy Mills,' and then I'd say name a third Native American athlete. And that's it. The invisibility of that, the long tradition of Native American people, American Indian people in athletics. Led me to sort of think about what it means to be expected to be in a place or to be an anomaly."
"Jim Thorpe ends up being an anomaly. Here's a Native American person, American Indian person who is achieving at the highest levels international levels in terms of sports. But he's not read as being representative he's read as being just a kind of a one off an unexpected kind of thing."
"And part of the argument of that book was that there was very, very long traditions around using technology around sports and athletics around performance, where Native people were diving into the international cosmopolitan world in the early 20th century and doing all kinds of interesting and amazing things. So Billy Mills fits within that tradition as being both exceptional but not really being exceptional, you know, in certain other ways."
"If you go to the 1904, 1908, 1912 Olympics, what you find is that Native people are participating in a whole range of different kinds of things. And so there's a moment in the early 20th century where there's lots and lots of visibility and lots of Native people, especially in track and field kinds of events, then that carries forward into the thirties, with Ellison Brown who runs the marathon, wins the Boston Marathon."
So there's this long tradition, once you start adding up the number of Native people who are engaged in athletics and now Olympic athletics as well, what you find is there's a lot, there's a substantial number that it is a tradition of our own."
"I think that's a big difference between today and those days that this wasn't part of a kind of media strategy. Mainstream media tended (to) represent them in these ways, as we said, as curiosities. It didn't have the same kinds of meanings."
"And I think our, your interview with Billy sort of suggests this, that there are many, many different ways in which to experience sports and athletics and being a runner that don't have much to do with creating a media presence or getting acclaim."
Also in the newscast, Jourdan Bennett-Begaye has the latest numbers of positive COVID-19 tests in Indian Country.
The anchor and executive producer of the newscast is Patty Talahongva.