Billy Mills Remains One of the Most Inspiring Olympic Figures
The Modern Olympics has a long history of making celebrated heroes, but few are as inspiring as Billy Mills. An underdog who grew up in poverty and overcame numerous struggles from every angle, Billy Mills exemplifies the American folk-hero. His victory in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in the Track and Field 10,000 meters is regarded as one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history. In fact, only the “Miracle on Ice” from the 1980 winter Olympics is regarded as a greater upset. But the story of Billy Mills is one that embodies the American heroic ideal – an individual who overcomes trials, hardships, personal tragedies and, most importantly, inner demons to emerge victorious.
Billy Mills was born June 30, 1938 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for Oglala Sioux people in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. He grew up in poverty and experienced painful loss at an early age. His mother died when he was nine, of tuberculosis, and his father died when he was twelve. From that point on his grandmother raised him. And it was at this time that he turned to running as a positive focus in his life.
He attended Haskell Institute, and Indian boarding school in Kansas. There he discovered he had true running talent. He won races and broke a number of high school track records. Although as a youth he had participated in both boxing and running, he committed himself fully to running and it paid off. No doubt the strength and power he developed in his earlier boxing years helped him to become an extraordinary runner at an early age.
After high school he attended the University of Kansas on athletic scholarship, in late 1950’s. This was his first long-term exposure to “white” culture, and he faced much prejudice and racism. Reporters would attack him if he lost a race, blaming his “laziness” on his “Indian” ethnicity. Photographers would make him get out of the team pictures, or they would take one picture with him in it and another without him, and then use the ones without him in the newspapers. Intense pressure to succeed and severe prejudice led him, at one point, to consider suicide to end the pain. As he stood on a chair in his hotel room after a cross-country race, considering jumping from the upper-story window he says he heard a voice, in his head that simply said “don’t”. He believed his Creator sent him that word in his own father’s voice, and it stopped him. That was a turning point in his life.
During his collegiate years he was a three-time All-American in cross country and won the Big-Eight cross country championships in 1960. He graduated with a B.S. in physical education. Although he had been a successful runner in college, nothing predicted the success he would have just a few years later.
After graduating from Kansas he was commissioned as a lieutenant in United States Marine Corps.
He took a brief break from running to focus on military life, and then returned to running and qualified for Olympic Trials a short time later. After eighteen months of training he made the 1964 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team in the 10,000 meters, and also in the marathon.
Prior to the 1964 Olympics no American had ever won the Olympic gold in the 10,000. Billy Mills was not expected to be a factor in this race. The top American was Gerry Lindgren, the famous “commie beater” of the 1960’s, but he was suffering from a sprained ankle that would keep him out of contention.
Ron Clarke of Australia was the world record holder and pre-race favorite, with Mohammad Gammoudi of Tunisia expected to be his toughest challenger. A number of other Olympic and world greats were also competing in the race. Mills’ best time was almost a full minute slower than Clarke’s going in, and he was not expected to do more than finish somewhere in the middle of the pack.
Legend has it that Mills was not given team shoes, and thus was running in a borrowed pair. Nevertheless, Billy ran in the lead pack from the get go. For most of the race it was the big, powerful Ron Clarke, the tiny Tunisian Gammoudi and Mills battling it out, trading the lead several times throughout.
Clarke kept throwing in surges, trying to break the others. But Mills kept going with him, knowing he had nothing to lose.
Coming into the last lap, on the back stretch, Billy and Ron Clarke were together, leading shoulder to shoulder. As they lapped some other runners Clarke became boxed in. He pushed Mills once, and then a second time to get past him. Then the tiny Tunisian shoved his way between them, almost knocking both of them over as he took the lead coming around the final curve. Clarke recovered first and was right on his heels, but Mills had fallen back about three yards and appeared to be out of contention. On the final stretch the focus was on the battle between Clarke and Gammoudi, but Mills, running way out in lane three, came up with an amazing kick and sprinted past the two of them like they weren’t even moving to win the gold medal in a then Olympic Record time of 28:24.4. This was a nearly 50 second improvement for Billy Mills. It was a stunning upset victory. To date, no other American has been able to win gold, or even come close, in the Olympic 10,000m.
Few people are aware that only a few days later Billy competed in the Olympic marathon and placed a very respectable 14th in a competitive time of 2:22:54.4.
His life story was made into a film called Running Brave, starring Robby Benson, in 1983. In the movie, the race would seem to have been over-sensationalized, yet the reality was even more dramatic. The announcer of the games, Dick Bank, who can be heard in the online videos of the race so enthusiastically shouting “Look at Mills! Look at Mills!” was fired (reportedly) for his over-exuberance. And Mill’s commanding and overpowering kick seems even more spectacular than was depicted in the movie.
To see the video of the real-life finish of this amazing race, click this YouTube link.
Mills later set U.S. records for 10,000m (28:17.6) and the three-mile run. In 1965 he tied with Gerry Lindgren in a six-mile race at the AAU National Championships where they both broke the world record, 27:11.6.
Billy Mills was inducted into the U.S. National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1976 and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1984.
He continues to serve as the spokesperson for Running Strong for American Indian Youth, an organization that helps American Indian people, particularly youth, through sports. He speaks every year at the pre-race festivities of the Marine Corps Marathon. He has also served on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. To this day, nearly fifty years after his incredible gold medal performance, he continues to inspire and motivate millions of Americans to push beyond their perceived limitations and succeed.