Do You Know Who Billy Mills Is?

A sports story you might have missed

Anne Emerick
Jul 29, 2020 · 16 min read
Billy Mills and Mohammed Gammoudi — public domain photo

October 14, 1964 — Tokyo Olympics

Thirty-eight men approached the starting line in the Olympic Stadium for the 10,000-meter race. The runners steadied themselves, leaned forward. The air was heavy with anticipation. Time seemed to stand still as the starter called for attention and raised the gun. Then they were off, jostling for position, running three and four deep around the curve.

A 10,000-meter race is 25 laps around the standard-size track. It is the longest track and field event that happens exclusively on the track. While popular in Europe, Americans rarely watch a 10,000-meter track race outside of Olympic years. The 1964 TV commentators explained about the number of laps, that the men would run for just under a half-hour, and that Ron Clarke of Australia, the current world record holder, was the favorite.

The best American hope was Gerry Lindgren, an 18-year-old who had stunned Soviet runners that summer winning the 10,000-meter event at a USA-USSR meet. But Lindgren was reported to have an ankle strain and not expected to be in top form.

The pack of runners stretched out in the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh laps. Plenty of time to think in a 10K, to wonder if you are up to the task. Are you pushing hard enough? Are you pushing too hard?

With only a second or two between them, five men passed the halfway point slightly faster than the world record (28:15) pace:

Billy Mills of the USA (14:04.6),
Ron Clarke of Australia (14:05.0),
Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia (14:06.0),
Barry Magee of New Zealand (14:06),
and Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia (14:07).

Just two seconds back, Japan’s Kōkichi Tsuburaya (14:09) carried the hopes of his countrymen. The crowd at Tokyo was on their feet.

Billy Mills’ time at the halfway point was within a second of his personal best for 5000 meters. The pace seemed like too much, felt like too much. He considered just stepping into the infield and out of the race. Mills wanted to quit, but he thought of his wife, Pat, in the stands and the commitment they had made together to the Olympics. He kept running.

The stadium lights were turned on. The lead changed hands, changed back again. Gradually a significant gap opened between the first three runners — Ron Clarke, Billy Mills, and Mohammed Gammoudi — and the rest of the field.

As the bell rang to signal the final lap, Billy Mills picked up the pace. The front-runners were now lapping other runners. Clarke panicked that Mills would box him in behind a slower runner and pushed Mills aside. Mills, exhausted, was thrown off balance. He staggered, then steadied himself, only to be bumped a second time by Mohammed Gammoudi, who burst between Clarke and Mills and sprinted ahead to a two-stride lead.

The three runners charged down the backstretch — Gammoudi, then Clarke and Mills. As they headed into the final curve, Gammoudi dramatically increased his lead to three strides, then four. Gammoudi looked uncatchable. But Ron Clarke surged back around the curve. Clarke’s strides became both longer and quicker. In a flash, Clarke closed the gap and ran on Gammoudi’s shoulder as they flew up behind other lapped runners. A collision seemed imminent, but at the last moment, the slower runners cleared the path for the leaders.

As the three runners rounded the final turn, all eyes fixed on whether Clarke could overtake Gammoudi. Out of nowhere, Mills charged up from behind. Briefly, the three runners raced within a split-second of each other, Gammoudi, Clarke, and Mills. Suddenly Mills ran, almost inexplicably faster than the other two. His arms and legs pumped furiously as they headed down the straightaway. In two strides, Mills caught Clarke and raced by him. Mills seemed to possess superhuman strength as he tore towards the finish. In four more strides, he was past Gammoudi.

“Look at Mills! Look at Mills!” NBC commentator Dick Banks shouted in glee. In seven more strides, Mills’ sprint carried him across the finish line.

Official Marine Corps Photo # A411758 / Public domain

“Woo — hoo — hoo!” Banks exclaimed, a cry of unbridled joy and amazement. No one had ever seen a finish like that. The time of 28:24.4, a new Olympic record, was 45 seconds faster than Mills had ever run before.

Mills threw up his arms and then covered his face, seeming to share in the shock and marvel at what he had done.

The final lap of the Tokyo Olympic 10K

A Japanese official was now at his side. Mills gestured with one finger to ask, to be sure, “I was first?” The official held up his index finger in answer. “Yes, one. First.”

The official asked, “Who are you?”

“Billy Mills.”

But the name Billy Mills wasn’t enough to explain. To know who Billy Mills is, one must understand when and where he came from.

1938–1952: Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Mills was born in South Dakota, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. When Billy was eight, his mother passed away.

Billy’s father took him aside and spoke about the anger, self-pity, and jealousy Billy felt. “All of those emotions, Son will destroy you,” his father said. “Look deeper, way down deep, where the dreams lie, Son. Find your dream. It’s the pursuit of the dream that’ll heal you. Billy, you have broken wings now, but you can rise from these broken wings and one day fly like an eagle.”

“All of those emotions, Son will destroy you. Look deeper, way down deep, where the dreams lie, Son. Find your dream. It’s the pursuit of the dream that’ll heal you. Billy, you have broken wings now, but you can rise from these broken wings and one day fly like an eagle.”

Soon afterward, Billy Mills read a book that said Olympians were ‘chosen by the gods.’ For Billy, being “chosen by the gods” meant he might be able to see his mother again. That hope was the beginning of Billy Mills’ Olympic dream.

But it was a childish, naïve dream. Billy didn’t excel at sports, and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was not a place to nurture such ambition.

Sadly, when Billy Mills was twelve, his father also passed away, leaving him in the care of his older brothers and sisters.

1952–1957 — Haskell Indian School, Lawrence Kansas

In 1952, Mills and his siblings decided he should attend Haskell Indian School, an eleven-hour bus ride from home. At Haskell, Mills signed up for the track team. Tony Coffin, Haskell’s track coach, was a warm, encouraging man who became like a second father to Mills. Under Coffin’s tutelage, Mills excelled, winning the Kansas state cross-country championship and earning a scholarship to Kansas University.

September 1958 — June 1962 — College and Not Belonging

At Kansas University, Mills faced prejudice and discrimination. When he mentioned his Olympic dream to Kansas’ head coach, Bill Easton, Easton said Mills was dreaming too big, that he should be more ‘realistic.’ The messages of not being good enough or recognized for what he had accomplished were constant.

On three different occasions, a photographer asked Mills to step out of the group photo for the All-America cross-country team. The photographer made it clear that he didn’t want the darker-skinned Mills in the picture, offering to take a second, unofficial photo with Mills in it.

The third time this happened, Mills felt overwhelmed, ‘broken.’ He went back to his hotel room and planned to kill himself. He climbed onto a chair by the window. At the last moment, he paused when he heard, no felt, his father’s voice, “Don’t. Don’t.”

Mills climbed down and thought of his father’s words from long ago — that a dream could heal a broken soul. He wrote on a paper:

Gold Medal. 1964 Olympics. 10,000 Meter Run.
Believe. Believe. Believe

He was broken, and he would pursue that dream.

Billy and Patricia Mills wedding day, photo courtesy of Billy Mills

As a junior, Billy Mills began dating Patricia (Pat) Harris. Pat was the first white person Mills trusted, and when he told her about his Olympic dream, she believed Mills could do what he said he could. Despite their very different backgrounds, they fell in love and were married one year later.

In his senior year, Mills began to struggle in races. Kansas coach, Bill Easton, was critical and often yelled at Mills. Their disagreements escalated with Mills sometimes quitting races, aware that his coach and others believed that his problems were in his head and that “Indians are quitters.” He gave up running for a short while, then encouraged by Pat, who left his running shoes by the front door, he began again.

Marines 1962 — early 1964

After graduation, Mills joined the Marines, where he found a sense of belonging missing from his life at Kansas University. With the Marines, Mills also found a team to run for. Track meets between different branches of the Armed Forces were at their peak.

In 1963 a Marine Corp doctor examining Mills made a startling discovery. Mills was hypoglycemic and borderline Type Two Diabetic. The doctor explained that he needed to eat within three hours of training or competing or risk going low blood sugar. In college, Mills had usually had more than four hours between his meals and running. Suddenly he understood why he had struggled to run higher mileage and been inconsistent in races.

Camp Pendleton — spring and summer 1964 — training with coach Tommy Thomson

In early 1964 the Marines transferred Mills to Camp Pendleton to train with other Olympic hopefuls. They would be coached by Tommy Thomson, formerly the coach at the Naval Academy.

Mills recalled, “He came up to me and said, ‘Son, I’m so glad you’re here. You have a lot of talent. Now, I’m not gonna coach you. I want to be your mentor, but you have to let me inside. You have to let me know your dreams.’”

Mills said it felt “like God sending my dad’s spirit in the form of Tommy Thomson, Sr.”

Thomson reviewed Mill’s logbook and asked about the January 6th entry:

‘Start training program for Olympics and I will set a new American record in the 10,000 meters — 28:50 or below!’

Billy Mills log book — photo courtesy of Billy Mills

“How many 10,000-meter races have you run on the track?” Thomson asked.

“Only two, Coach. The first was in 1960, and the time was 31:10. The second was August 1963 at the World Military Championship. My time was 30:08, but it was a tactical race.”

Thomson then asked what made Mills write 28:50 as a goal.

Mills responded, “Don’t you think I can do it?”

Thomson said he thought Mills was capable of that time, but he would need to dramatically increase his mileage and intensity of workouts. He also advised, “If you go for a medal, you may settle for 4th or 5th. What do you say we go for a gold medal?”

Mills admitted that actually, he was training mentally for the Gold. He confided to Thomson that he intended to run 28:50 for the 10,000 meters by the time of the Olympic Trials.

Thomson said that time would be fast enough to qualify, but not be fast enough to win in Tokyo. Thomson asked Mills, “What is the very fastest you believe you can run?”

Mills hesitated then said, “Coach, I have been preparing mentally to run 28:25 at the Olympics, but I have kept it private.”

Thomson nodded.

Billy Mills and Tommy Thomson at Camp Pendleton
Billy Mills and Tommy Thomson at Camp Pendleton
Billy Mills and Tommy Thomson — photos courtesy of Billy Mills.

Thomson and Mills discussed increasing his mileage, the risk of injury with that sudden increase, and handling his low blood sugar. Finally, Thomson commented that most people would consider Mills’ quest for Olympic Gold to be an impossible dream.

Mills told the coach about his University of Kansas psychology class and the subconscious mind not distinguishing between reality or imagination, but responding to both. Mills explained, “Coach, I am constantly winning the Olympic race in my mind. I visualize winning so often it is becoming real in my feelings.”

Coach Thomson replied, “Keep visualizing.”

In the two months before meeting with Thomson, Mills had run an average of 40 miles a week. Overnight, Mills doubled his mileage while also increasing the intensity of his training. From Mills’ logbook:

March 2-March 8= 85 Miles
March 9-March 15= 75 Miles
March 16-March 22= 75 Miles
March 23-March 29= 90 Miles
March 30-April 5= 100 Miles

1964 — Qualifying for the Olympics

On July 26, on a brutally hot day, Billy Mills ran the Olympic trial qualifying marathon in Culver City, California. He finished second in 2:27:01 to qualify for the Olympic team as a marathoner. It was his first marathon.

Mills received many congratulations, but he also received unsolicited and hurtful advice, including two letters.

“If you make the Olympic team in the 10,000 meters, you need to give up your spot in the marathon to the runner who finished behind you. If you try running both the 10,000 meters and the marathon, you will be a disgrace to our Olympic team and an embarrassment to America.”

— — — — — — — — — — — —

“You are a flash in the pan. Give up your place in the marathon to Jim Green who finished behind you. He is a seasoned marathoner.”

On September 12, 1964, Billy Mills finished second in the Olympic trials 10,000-meter run in 29:10. He would run both the Olympic 10,000 meters and the marathon in Tokyo.

October 14, 1964 — Tokyo Olympics

On the track in Tokyo on October 14th 1964, Billy Mills put aside everything he had been told about who he was and willed himself through the race as he had imagined it so many times before. He had not expected the shoving that came early in that final lap. He had been pushed around for a lot of his life, and anger momentarily grabbed his focus. When Gammoudi and Clarke pulled away from him, he knew he could still get bronze, but that was not the dream.

As Mills ran the final curve, he wasn’t sure if he could catch Gammoudi and Clarke. He was behind with less than 100 meters left. He focused on pumping his arms, lifting his knees.

“Just one more try. Just one more try. Just one more try,” he said to himself. Mills struggled to gain any ground. Mills thought, “I may never be this close again. I have to do this now!”

He concentrated on running as hard as he could while staying relaxed. As he passed a lapped runner, he glanced over and saw an eagle on the other runner’s singlet. He remembered his father’s words, “Wings of an eagle. Wings of an eagle.” Still racing, his thoughts changed to, “I’ve won. I’ve won. I’ve won.” The tape broke across his chest.

Billy Mills became and still is the only runner from the Western hemisphere to win an Olympic 10,000-meter run.

Different footage of this epic event. Mills is #722. He lines up at the start in the second row near the outside.

October 21, 1964 — Tokyo Olympics

One week later, Billy Mills finished 14th in the Olympic marathon. It is a finish that many runners would view as a great achievement. But Billy Mills speaks of it sadly even now, explaining that he had hoped to medal. It was only his second marathon, and Mills had added protein powder to his Tang that would wait for him at the rest stations. It made the Tang too thick to drink. He simply couldn’t get it to suck through the straw. Still, he ran well, at one point being told he was in sixth until the dehydration and low blood sugar overcame him. Mills began to hallucinate, and “about a thousand people passed him.”

The Tokyo Olympic marathon was only the second marathon Billy Mills had ever run. He would choose to make it his last.

1965–2019 — The United States

Winning a gold medal at the Olympics opened many doors for Mills, doors that had previously been closed. He had business associations invite him to a meeting and say, “You’re one of us now.” Mills couldn’t help but wonder, what made him ‘one of them’ now? Hadn’t his being a U.S. Marine and willing to die for his country been enough for them to accept him before? Racial prejudice and injustice still showed itself in everyday life in the United States. Mills wanted to empower other young people who were facing these same racial injustices, but he wasn’t sure how yet.

After he was discharged from the Marines in 1965, Mills continued to train and compete. He edged out Gerry Lindgren in the six-mile at the AAU Championships, winning with a lean at the tape. Both men were recorded as having set a new world record time of 27:11.6. While competing brilliantly, Mills felt the strain of balancing world-class competitive running with being hypoglycemic and decided to retire from racing.

While well-known to Native Americans, Billy Mills gained a wider audience when Running Brave, a movie that told the story of Mills’ life, was released in November 1983, starring Robby Benson.

The fame that came with Running Brave gave Mills more opportunities to help others. He and Gene Krizek founded Running Strong for American Indian Youth in 1986, which aimed to improve the lives of Native Americans. Its accomplishments span from physical improvements (well water, housing for seniors), to medical (dialysis clinics) and academic (scholarships). In 2015, Running Strong announced the Dreamstarter® grant program to help the next generation of American Indian youth make their dreams come true. Each year ten $10,000 grants are awarded to ten Native American youth, who partner with a non-profit organization on projects of meaningful change.

Mills explains his dedication to philanthropy this way:

“On October 14, 1964, I laid footprints on Mother Earth that forever altered my life. That moment was a gift, and Patricia and I wanted to give back. We decided to take one of the virtues and values of tribal nations, in this case the Lakota, we took the virtue of the giveaway and made our own life, a lifetime giveaway.”

2020 — Where is Billy Mills Today?

Billy Mills, age 82, is alive and well and living in California. Mills has an active Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/OfficialBillyMills/), where you can follow his activities and share his passions. He is a husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, leader, and friend to many. He is the national spokesman for Running Strong for American Indian Youth. He is scheduled to participate on a sports panel in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, now rescheduled for 2021. Billy and Pat Mills, a talented artist, remain an incredible team with interwoven personal and professional lives. It was Pat who found a spot on Billy’s schedule when he could speak with me.

We spoke on Monday, July 13, the day the Washington D.C. National Football League’s franchise announced they would no longer use ‘The Redskins’ as the team name. Mills did not mince words as he explained to me, that ‘redskins’ had been used not just to refer to Native Americans, but to refer to their scalps which were used, at one time, to collect a reward. This concept chilled me and sent me reading more the next day. Mills believes people should understand the past.

“We need to teach at a seventh or eighth-grade level what I just described in a manner that they can understand. Not to teach anger, but to teach how this great country of ours was built, and how much further we can go when we empower humanity by addressing some of the challenges we have in America.”

The Mills, like so many of us, were disappointed that the Olympics had to be postponed a year. If it is safe, they will go in 2021. Mills said he is hoping to no longer be the only person from the Western hemisphere to have won Olympic 10K Gold. He’d like someone to share that honor with.

“But I don’t have a favorite,” Mills said. “I just cheer for our female distance runners and our male distance runners. We have some very, very tough female and male runners, both. But, with four daughters, and the first three grandchildren were granddaughters, and the first great-grandchild was a great-granddaughter, so I’m probably just a little partial towards the female runners. It would only be fair to have a female from the U.S., a 10K runner to join me. I think that would be thrilling. But I root for them all.”

Mills said that on the final day of track and field at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, he and Pat will “semi-retire.” I asked what guides him now as approaches “semi-retirement” in the work that he does.

“For the rest of my life,” Mills responded, “I’ll always have goals in front of me. My new goal is to live to be 100, with a good, healthy mind. But my real purpose in life right now is to choose the words I speak. Because once you say them, you can never take them back. So, I want to do that in communicating to the public. I want to be in a position to bring people together. And that’s just another way that I can continue to say ‘Thanks’ for a gift that was given to me on October 14th in Tokyo Japan.”

Author’s Note: My Own Billy Mills Moment

I’m a very part-time writer. I don’t have a big following of people who read what I write. As I began to write about Billy Mills and the Tokyo Olympic 10K, I thought, “Who am I to write such an article?” I had rewatched Running Brave as part of my research and I thought, “gosh. Hollywood! Hollywood has done his story, and there’s the real-life footage on YouTube, and Billy Mills himself has spoken about the race, and what can you, Anne, possibly do with words on a page that will bring it to life better than that?”

I considered how Mills wrote “Gold Medal. 1964 Olympics. 10,000 Meter Run” on a piece of paper and then below it he wrote, ‘Believe, believe, believe.’

The second line was just as important as the first. I considered the whole Billy Mills theme — who was he to think he could win a 10K Gold medal at the Olympics?’ Who was I to write his story? We both were people who needed to believe, believe, believe.

This article was my own Billy Mills moment of believing, of having faith in my own abilities. The dream I was pursuing was to spark something inside of you, the reader.

To assist Billy Mills making others’ dreams come true, you can:

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Anne Emerick

Written by

A programmer by day, author by night. When I put on running tights, I like to imagine I’m a super hero. Creator of Unemploymentville.com. Follow me if you dare.

Runner's Life

Runner's Life is a publication for advice and stories from the intersection of running and life. By runners, for runners.

Anne Emerick

Written by

A programmer by day, author by night. When I put on running tights, I like to imagine I’m a super hero. Creator of Unemploymentville.com. Follow me if you dare.

Runner's Life

Runner's Life is a publication for advice and stories from the intersection of running and life. By runners, for runners.

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