Fifty years ago today, during the 1964 Olympic Games, Billy Mills pulled off one of the greatest upsets in the history of track and field. His story, made into the 1983 movie Running Brave, has inspired countless runners and fans of underdog stories. Last year, Mills spoke with me from his California home.
Born in 1938, Mills grew up in poverty on the Oglala Sioux reservation in South Dakota. Mills lost both of his parents to early deaths when he was just a boy. He was particularly close with his father, who had provided hope and encouragement as Billy was dealing with the death of his mother. “You have broken wings,” Mills’ father told Billy. “If you follow your dreams, then someday you’ll have the wings of an eagle.”
Mills turned to sports, partly as a way to cope with the devastation of being orphaned. He excelled in running, earning All-American honors at the University of Kansas. But Mills’ losses continued to haunt him. Further, he felt like an outsider in the running world where he perceived racial discrimination. At one point, Mills became so depressed that he considered suicide. Standing near an open window of a high dormitory floor, “I was ready to jump,” Mills told me. At that moment, he felt the presence of his father and heard him say “Don’t do this, Billy.” With a life-changing decision, Mills stepped away from the window and turned back towards life and running. Almost immediately, he set a very high goal — to win the 10,000 meter race in the next Olympic Games.
The 10K is a particularly difficult race, consisting of 25 laps around a 400-meter track. Keeping a fast, consistent pace is challenging on both a mental and physical level. Mills imagined the way he wanted to run the race. “For me it was a form of self-hypnosis and I visualized dozens of times a day,” said Mills. In addition, Mills added speed and interval training into his workouts.
Mills qualified for the U.S. team and traveled to Japan. No fanfare greeted Mills who was a virtual unknown on the international scene. Instead, the favorite for the Games was Ron Clarke of Australia, the 10K world record holder.
On October 14, 1964, 38 runners toed the line in Tokyo’s National Stadium. From the beginning, Clarke set the pace. He alternated running laps at a strong tempo with surge laps in which he tried to break down his competitors. After 12½ laps staying close to Clarke, Mills felt awful. He had passed the 5K mark in a time close to his personal best for that distance; but 5000 meters remained. Mills seriously questioned whether he could continue. “I was so tired; I had to continuously remind myself of the race plan,” Mills said. In order to maintain such a fast pace, Mills mentally broke down the remaining 5000 meters into shorter distances to try to stay with Clarke.
With two laps remaining, there were three runners contesting for the lead: Clarke, Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia, and Mills who was hanging on. Lapping other runners on the final lap, the three neared the backstretch. Clarke nudged Mills to create some room. Mills stumbled to the outside while Gammoudi surged past both of them. It looked like Mills would place third. But with 50 meters remaining, Mills put on an amazing burst of speed as the stunned onlookers watched.
At that moment, “I saw an eagle’s wings on another runner’s jersey,” Mills said. “And I felt that my father was helping me fly.”
As Mills went by Clarke and Gammoudi, Dick Bank, one of the television announcers, grabbed the microphone screaming “Look at Mills! Look at Mills!” Mills crossed the finish line first in 28:24 – 46 seconds faster than he had ever run that distance.
Mills told me that after the race, his life changed. He devoted much of his energies to giving back to his community. In 1986, Mills and Eugene Krizek founded the nonprofit Running Strong for American Indian Youth, which brings resources and a sense of hope to some of the most impoverished American Indian communities in the nation.
Mills remains the only American, male or female, to win Olympic Gold in the 10,000 meter race. Read about the 50th anniversary celebration of Mills’ gold medal here. And, for a dose of goose bumps, watch the video of the race (below). The narration by Mills illustrates so well the mental toughness and training that went into that race.
Happy 50th, Billy.
(This article also published in the Asheville Citizen Times here.)