Billy Mills – Commitment
“Coming off the last turn, my thoughts changed from ‘One more try…one more try…one more try…’ to ‘I can win! I can win! I can win!”
Billy Mills was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He is a member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe. According to the US Census, this reservation represented one of the poorest regions in America. Billy was one of seven children. His parents didn’t have much money or material possessions, but they did provide an abundance of love. His mother taught him the ways of his ancestral people and his father taught Billy to hunt, fish, and to live off the land.
On one of those fishing excursions at the young age of seven, Billy’s father reached over and softly stroked his arm and said, “You now have broken wings.” This was his father’s way of breaking the sad news to his son that his mother had died. The father then invited his young son to look past the hurt, the pain, and the self-pity because he believed that those emotions could kill his son. He then encouraged him to look deeper within himself to find a dream, because the pursuit of a dream is what heals broken souls. The father finished his speech by saying, “And, if you follow these steps, someday you will have wings of an eagle.”
Unfortunately, this was not the last time young Billy experienced death and loss. Billy’s father died a few years later. Without a mother or a father, all seven of their children were scattered to different towns. Billy was sent to the Haskell Institute in Kansas, which served as an orphanage and a school for many Native Americans. At Haskell, Billy was considered too small to excel at most big-name sports, so he tried his hand at running and quickly discovered success. In fact, Billy went on to win three state championships in cross country and set several state records in the distance events on the track. Because of his talents, and his commitment to developing them fully, Billy received a full athletic scholarship to the University of Kansas.
It is important to understand the context of the times when Billy entered college. It was 1956 and the Civil Rights Movement was just beginning. America was not an open and tolerant place for Native Americans. When Billy arrived, he soon realized that he was the only Native American on his team and one of only two Native Americans on the entire campus. And Billy subsequently experienced many instances of racism. For example, after rushing a fraternity on campus, he was asked to leave because the charter rules stated that Indians were not allowed to join. Another blatant example occurred after Billy earned All-American cross country honors and the photographer asked him to step out of the All-American photo.
Despite the commitment and his achievements, many of Billy’s own teammates referred to him as “chief” and others found ways to ostracize him. Billy repeatedly asked his coach to deal with the racism on the team. But the coach had a one-track mind: He was focused solely on winning. Billy tried to make sense of this. “Being an orphan, my trust was put into my emotional, my social, my psychological, my cultural existence, and I placed that into his lap,” he recalled. “And there was too much on his plate. He wanted an athlete.”
Billy felt lost and broken. His unwavering commitment to himself, his university, and his team became uneven. He later explained that, at that time, with so much disrespect all around him, he really struggled with depression and even contemplated suicide. Without the support he needed from his coach, Billy did not even complete 40% of the major races that he entered during his senior year. When Billy later reflected on his inconsistencies, he turned it back on himself: “It was a defiance. It was almost a sense that this was the only way I thought I could get back at society — to hurt some people that were trying to help me — my coach, the University of Kansas.”
After graduation, Billy married his college sweetheart, Patricia, and joined the marines. He even gave up running for a while, but his dream was to be an Olympian. So, the marine corps allotted him time to train for the 1964 Olympics. Billy set his sights on the 10,000 meters, even though he had only run that race on four previous occasions and had never secured a victory at that distance. However, he dedicated himself to this singular endeavor, running 100 miles a week. Billy was also a big believer in imagery, meditation and the power of visualization. He devoted time every day to visualizing every part of the race, what he would do at each stage of the race and how he would achieve a positive outcome.
Billy successfully qualified for the 1964 Olympic games in Tokyo by finishing second in the 10,000-meter event at the US Olympic trials. His commitment got him on the team, but now he faced formidable odds. The heavy favorite in Billy’s event was Australia’s Ron Clarke. Clarke owned the world record in this event and his time was almost a minute faster than Billy’s. As broadcaster Tom Brokaw rightly pointed out, “He (Billy) wasn’t a long shot. By everyone’s estimation, he had no shot.” In a little-known story, the US Olympic Committee, didn’t even believe in Billy enough to issue him a pair of the team running shoes. He actually had to borrow a pair for the race. It was no wonder that, when 36 athletes stepped to the starting line of this 26-lap race, no one was talking about the Native American, Billy Mills.
As expected, Ron Clarke went straight to the front and set a fast pace. As the laps ticked off, more and more runners faded off the pace. Billy, however, stayed with the leaders and passed the 3-mile mark exactly one second slower than his fastest time ever, but this race was only half over. With two laps to go, only Clarke, Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia and Mills remained in the lead pack. The three of them were lapping slower runners as the leading pack picked up speed for the finish.
With one lap left, Billy clung to the outside shoulder of Clarke. Then Clarke got “boxed out” by a slower runner in the inside lane and he inexplicably pushed Billy into the third lane in order to make room for himself. A startled Mills rebounded back to Clarke’s shoulder. Then, the Tunisian runner shoved his arms between Clarke and Mills to create a narrow lane for himself. The result was an exhausted Billy now 20 feet behind the leaders and fading. Billy admitted later, “I almost quit. I was going to accept third place.”
The only thing that kept Billy going was the words his father told him when he was seven years old: “And, if you follow these steps, you will have wings of an eagle.” Billy gathered himself and prepared for one last push. Then, as they rounded the final turn, a German athlete — who was being lapped — turned around and faded to the 5th lane. This suddenly gave Billy an alley to track down the leaders. Still behind, he said to himself “I can win. I can win. I can win.” Billy sprinted with all he had, surged by Clarke, and caught the Tunisian star with just yards to spare. Billy Mills was an Olympic champion!
A Japanese race official immediately came up to him and started screaming in broken English, “Who are you? Who are you?” Even the race officials had never heard of him. Within hours, reporters were referring to it as the greatest upset in Olympic history. Today, this accomplishment still ranks in the annals of Olympic lore. And, to this day, Billy Mills — the orphaned Native American from South Dakota — remains the only American to ever win a gold medal in the 10,000 meters. “Broken no more,” Billy recalled. “At that moment, I truly felt like I had wings on my feet.”
Billy instantly became a hero and a role model to the Native American culture and he remains a powerful inspiration to the young people in this community. His tribe gave him the Lakota name of Tamakoce Te’Hila, which loosely means, “loves his country.” To most, Billy was not a Native American Olympic champion, he was an American Olympic champion. And, as society evolved, Billy received more positive recognition. He has been inducted into a dozen Halls of Fame and several schools have been named in his honor. He was given the honor of carrying the American flag during the opening ceremonies at the 1984 Olympics. Finally, in 2012, President Barack Obama awarded Billy the Presidential Citizens Medal.
Billy remains committed. He has dedicated the remainder of his life to giving back to the Native American community. He co-founded a non-profit organization entitled Running Strong, which has the mission of helping Native American people fulfill their basic needs while also helping their communities gain self-sufficiency and self-esteem. He remains married to Patricia and together they raised three children. Billy had initially established a successful insurance business, but he knew that could never satisfy him. So he quit and subsequently produced a film about his life in 1983 entitled Running Brave. He then became a motivational speaker, recounting his life lessons to thousands of groups across America. Among his many life lessons, he teaches young people to dream big and then to go after their dreams with everything that they have.
Check out the Student Athlete Program
Billy Mills is one of the 144 “Wednesday Role Models” featured in the Student Athlete Program. This program is designed to improve the character, leadership and sportsmanship of high school athletes. To learn more about this program and how you can implement it in your school: