In 1964, at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Billy Mills, an Oglala Lakota, prepared to run the 10,000 meter race in hopes of winning an Olympic gold medal. Today, over five decades later, he is celebrating his 79th birthday.
Raised in one of the poorest communities in the country, the Pine Ridge reservation, Billy Mills experienced the pain no young child should have to feel. He was eight years old when his mother died.
His father once told him during a fishing trip, “Son, you have broken wings,” His father drew a circle in the dirt and asked his son to stand inside the circle and look into his heart. Billy Mills felt emotions of rage, sadness and remorse. “All these emotions will destroy you,” his father said. “I hope you’ll try sports, son.”
When he was 9, Billy Mills read a line in a book on the Olympic Games that said, “Olympians are chosen by the Gods.” Billy Mills set his sights on becoming an athlete.
Just three years later, when he was 12, his father died.
In conversations with ICMN, Billy Mills has said he continued to battle the demons in his life and had many times contemplated suicide. Sports were an outlet that saved his life.
Mills attended the Haskell Institute and was coached by Tony Coffin. Working in a grain mill for long hours as a sophomore, Billy Mills still managed to run 45 minutes every day.
He later graduated from the University of Kansas and joined the Marine Corps. Deciding to get to the Olympics and race in the 10,000 meter run, he said “I made the choice to try to win that race instead of committing suicide.”
While he was in the stadium just before the 10,000 meter race was set to begin, his sister called from Pine Ridge to tell him the community was praying for him. He felt inspired that people back home were thinking of him.
Then the 10,000 meter race began. At first, Mills let his competition get ahead to save energy for the last lap. As he raced, his blood sugar dropped, his arms were going numb and he was worried he might quit. He saw his wife’s face in the huge crowd. She was crying due to her pride for his accomplishments.
When the race was nearing its end Billy Mills was shoved by two rivals, nearly causing him to stumble. He thought he might run ahead to shove them back. He instead focused on winning.
As Mills continued to run, he saw the image of an eagle on another runner’s shirt. “I can win,” he said to himself in the heat of the last lap. “I can win.”
Billy Mills knew the time had come to kick harder than he had ever kicked before. He shot ahead of the pack as the announcer screamed, “Look at Mills! Look at Mills!”
With his win, Billy Mills accomplished one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history. Today Billy Mills is not only the only Native American to win the 10,000 meter gold medal, but he is still the only American citizen to win an Olympic gold medal in the 10,000 meter run.
As the national anthem played for the Olympic medal ceremony, Mills told ICMN that he heard his father’s voice say,”Son, you can step out of the circle now.’”
Today Billy Mills is the spokesperson and founder of Running Strong, an organization dedicated to helping American Indian people meet their immediate survival needs while creating opportunities for self-sufficiency and self-esteem in American Indian youth.
Happy Birthday, Billy Mills.