Mills, Billy

views updated Jun 11 2018

Billy Mills


American track and field athlete

Lakota Sioux runner Billy Mills was responsible for one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history. A complete unknown in the track-and-field world, Mills outran a field of international track stars to win the gold medal in the 10,000-meter race in the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Mills's win was the first gold medal by any American in this event, and was a particular source of pride for Native Americans. Interestingly, the only other American ever to medal in the event was another Native American, Louis Tewanima, a Hopi Indian, who won silver in 1912.

"Live Your Life as a Warrior"

Born William Mervin Mills on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1938, Mills was one of eight children. The reservation, then as now, was one of the poorest districts in the United States, and residents often struggled with hunger, diabetes, alcoholism, and other health conditions. Mills's family was no exception. His mother, who was one-quarter Lakota Sioux, died when he was seven years old. His father, a boxer who was three-quarters Lakota, died when he was twelve. After being orphaned, Mills was sent to the Haskell Indian School in Lawrence, Kansas. This was a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

At the school, Mills became involved in sports. His father had told him to live his life as a warrior. This meant combining physical and mental toughness with assuming responsibility for one's actions, being humble, and giving back to others. Mills wanted to be like his father, so he tried out for the boxing team, and he also played football. He was small and thin, 5 foot 2 inches tall and only 104 pounds, but he liked the discipline that football involved. He was not interested in track, and thought of it as a sport for sissies. However, he eventually tried running, and found that it involved a level of discipline, training, and mental focus as rigorous as that needed for football. In addition, his build was more suited to running. He soon became a top runner, and when he graduated from Haskell in 1958, he received a full athletic scholarship to the University of Kansas.

At Kansas, Mills had little contact with his long-scattered siblings, and he was lonely and isolated. According to a writer in Contemporary Heroes and Heroines Mills later said that this loneliness fueled his running: "I was running from rejection, from being orphaned. The Indians called me mixed blood. The white world called me Indian. I was running in search of my identity. I was running to find Billy." In his first 10,000-meter race, Mills set a conference record. In 1958 and 1959 he was All-American in cross country; in 1960 he won the individual title in the Big Eight Conference cross-country tournament; and in 1961 he was conference champion in the 2-mile. The Kansas team won the NCAA outdoor national championships in 1959 and 1960.

Despite these wins, Mills did not receive any recognition. He did not qualify for the 1960 Olympics, and he lost his motivation, running poorly, sometimes dropping out of races.

At the end of his senior year, in 1962, Mills married his college girlfriend, Pat. At the same time, he became an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, based at Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego. In the Marines, his running was encouraged, and he increased his training from 40 miles a week to 100 miles a week. With this grueling regimen, he won the inter-service 10,000-meter race in Germany. His time was 30.08. He also ran 4:08 in the mile, a personal record.

In 1964, Mills went to the Olympic Trials, finishing second, behind Gerry Lindgren. His time, 29:10.4, was the best he had ever run in the event, but it was almost a minute slower than that of the other runners who qualified for the event. Although Mills made the Olympic team, no one paid much attention to him.

"My Indianness Kept Me Striving"

Later that year, Mills went to Tokyo, Japan to compete. No one in the track world had heard of this Native American Marine, and he was not considered as competition by any of the world-famous runners there. In addition, no American athlete had ever won a distance race in the Olympics. Even the American coach did not expect Mills to win, and was not sure if any American athletes would even place in the event. Ironically, Mills was actually ranked eighth in the world at the time, an immense achievement that should have forewarned coaches and competitors. In an interview with Runner's World, Mills said that he was overlooked as a runner because of the prejudices of his time: "I was caught, as a Native American, in that complexity of how society deals with someone who's different. Because of that, no coach, trainer, or anyone in the media knew that I went to the Olympic Games ranked eighth in the world."

Indeed, the U.S. Olympic Committee initially refused to provide Mills with shoes for the race; according to an article on the Sports Humanitarian Web page, one official said, "We only have enough for those we expect to do well." Mills borrowed shoes and got ready for the race.

Of all the thirty-six runners in the event, Australia's Ron Clarke was expected to win. Tunisian Mohamed Gammoudi was expected to place second, and any of the other runners could have taken the bronze medal. Clarke and Gammoudi were the only runners who were believed capable of winning.

Mills, who believed in the value of positive mental imagery, ignored these predictions. During his training, he had visualized a young Native American runner winning the 10,000 meters, over and over again, erasing any images of loss.

As the runners lined up on the wet track, Mills continued to focus on winning. After the starting gun sounded, Clarke and Gammoudi took first and second place, with the other runners behind them in a mixed pack. Mills stayed up with the rest of the pack, and as the group entered the last 300 yards, Mills took the lead. Gammoudi jostled Clarke, and Clarke elbowed Mills, forcing him to stumble and lose 20 yards.

The crowd watched, cheering, as Clarke and Gammoudi continued in the lead, as predicted.


1938Born June 30, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota
1958-62Attends University of Kansas in Lawrence; becomes a top runner
1958-59All-American in cross-country; Kansas team wins NCAA outdoor national championships
1960Winner, individual title in Big Eight Conference cross-country tournament
1960Attempts to qualify for Olympics, but does not make the team
1961Conference champion, 2-mile race
1962Marries his college sweetheart, Pat
1962Joins Marine Corps
1964Makes Olympic team, but his achievements are largely ignored
1964Wins Olympic gold medal in Olympics, in a startling upset; sets new Olympic record
1965Sets world record in 6-mile run with a time of 27:11.6; sets American records in the 10,000 meters and the 3-mile run
1968Attends Olympic trials and beats the "winner" by 13 seconds, but is disqualified because of application form errors
1983Running Brave, a film version of Mills's life, is released
1984Inducted into U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame
1980s-presentWorks as motivational speaker, author, and philanthropist
1997Inducted into Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame
1999Inducted into Distance Running Hall of Fame

Awards and Accomplishments

1958-59All-American in cross-country; Kansas team wins NCAA outdoor national championships
1960Winner, individual title in Big Eight Conference cross-country tournament
1961Big Eight Conference champion, 2-mile race
1964Wins Olympic gold medal in Olympics, in a startling upset; sets new Olympic record
1965Sets world record in 6-mile run with a time of 27:11.6; sets American records in the 10,000 meters and the 3-mile run
1984Inducted into U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame
1997Inducted into Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame
1999Inducted into Distance Running Hall of Fame

According to Bud Greenspan in 100 Greatest Moments in Olympic History, Mills decided he still had a chance to win. "So I started driving. They were fifteen yards in front of me, but it seemed like fifty yards. Then I kept telling myself, 'I can win I can win I can win ' Mills surged forward, passing Gammoudi and Clarke, and the crowd fell silent, shocked at this unexpected comeback.

Mills finished three yards ahead of Gammoudi, who took second place, with a time of 28:24.4, a new Olympic record, forty-six seconds better than his best time to date. A writer in Contemporary Heroes and Heroines quoted Mills as saying later, "My Indianness kept me striving to take first and not settle for less in the last yards of the Olympic race. I thought of how our great chiefs kept on fighting when all the odds were against them as they were against me. I couldn't let my people down."

After the race, according to Mark Bloom in Runner's World, reporters asked Clarke if he had been worried about Mills beating him. Clarke replied, "Worried about him? I never heard of him." And, according to an article about Mills on the Sports Humanitarian Web site, he was so little-known that an official approached Mills after the race and asked, "Who are you?"

Mills' win was voted the Associated Press "Upset of the Year" for 1964. That was the same year that African-American boxer Cassius Clay (who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali ) beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title, an event often considered one of the biggest upsets of all time; the fact that Mill's win took precedence over Clay's shows the impact it had on sports reporters at the time.

Although Mills also ran the Olympic marathon, he finished in 14th place. He told a Runner's World writer that he thinks he had the potential to do well in that event, but that he did not do the right type of training. In addition, during the race, he did not drink enough water. Although he was in fourth place at mile 21 of the 26.2-mile race, he became dehydrated, and when he did drink, his specially concocted beverage tasted so bad that he couldn't swallow it. By mile 24.5 he was badly dehydrated, and hit what marathoners call "the wall," a state of exhaustion in which the athlete struggles to run at all, let alone with any speed.

Makata Taka Hela

Mills reacted modestly and with great dignity to all the media attention that was focused on him after his 10,000-meter win. He took a tour to more than fifty countries, emphasizing his drive to win and his pride in his Native American heritage. In an article in Biography Resource Center, Mills said, "I wanted to make a total effort, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Even if I lost, with this effort I believed that I would hold the greatest key to success."

In response, Mills's tribe, the Lakota, honored him with traditional gifts, made him a warrior, and gave him a Lakota name, Makata Taka Hela, which means "respects the earth" or "loves his country." He became a hero for Native American youth on his home reservation at Pine Ridge. Mills typically downplayed his own accomplishments, often saying that other Native American people were more talented than he was, and simply needed opportunity to achieve their goals.

After his Olympic win, Mills continued to train. He set a world record in the six-mile run in 1965, with a time of 27:11.6, and set American records in the 10,000-meter run and the 3-mile run. He also continued to serve in the Marines. At the time, the Vietnam War was at its height. Mills felt that he could not indulge himself in running for sport when his contemporaries were fighting and being killed. Although the Marines never sent him to Vietnam, he was deeply saddened by the deaths of men in his unit. He finished his Marine career as a captain, then worked for the Department of the Interior.

In 1968, Mills tried out for the Olympic team, but missed making the team because of a technical flaw on his application form. He still ran in the qualifying race, and beat the official "winner"who did go to the Gamesby thirteen seconds.

Running Brave

Billy Mills's life story was dramatized in the 1983 film Running Brave. Starring Robby Benson as Mills, the movie is a powerful statement not only about Mills's Olympic achievement, but also the effects of racism on Native Americans. In, John Nesbit wrote, "There really is a special feeling, a sense of pride that occurs within Native Americans when one of their own succeeds in the white world, and Running Brave captures this well."

The film opens at a high school track meet, where Mills's performance impresses white University of Kansas coach Bill Easton. When Mills accepts the track scholarship Easton offers, he finds himself isolated and uprooted on the predominantly white campus. Mills relies on his own inner sense of pride and the will to achieve to get through this tough time.

As Mills moves on to compete and win in the Olympic 10,000 meters, the film accurately depicts the race and its outcome; as Nesbit wrote, "even the incredible final finish mirrors archive footage."

Where Is He Now?

In addition to his own speaking work, Mills is also the national spokesperson for Running Strong for American Indian Youth, a charitable organization that helps poor Native American people meet their needs for food, health care, clothing, water, and shelter, and teaches them how they can become self-sufficient and take pride in their heritage. In addition, the organization sponsors young Native American runners and encourages them to succeed. On the Running Strong for American Indian Youth Web page, an article about Mills explained, "In Lakota culture, someone who has achieved success would have a 'giveaway' to thank the support system of family and friends who helped him achieve his goal. Billy's work with Running Strong is his way of giving something back to American Indian people." In People, a reporter quoted Mills as saying, "I've designed my life so that I can continue to give."

In addition to his work as a speaker, Mills teamed up with writer Nicholas Sparks to write Wokini: A Lakota Journey to Happiness and Understanding. In the book, which is a parable of a young man's spiritual journey, a young man is given a mysterious scroll by his father after his sister dies. Through the teachings in the scroll, he learns to move through his grief and pain and find happiness and spiritual insight. In Booklist, reviewer Pat Monaghan called it "an optimistic book likely to appeal widely." By 2002, the book had gone through four printings.

This experience left Mills bitter at the fact that red tape could keep him out of the Olympics. However, as

before, he moved on with his life instead of remaining discouraged. According to a writer in Contemporary Heroes and Heroines he said, "A man has a lot to do with deciding his own destiny. I can do one of two thingsgo through life bickering and complaining about the raw deal I got, or go back into competition to see what I can do."

Mills' Olympic win was the inspiration for a 1983 movie, Running Brave, which Mills wrote with his wife Pat. The film, starring Robby Benson as Mills, was produced by Englander Productions.

In 1984, Mills was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. He told Jay Weiner in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "The first thing I think of when I think Olympics is that it shows how there can be unity through diversity. It's such a powerful thing."

Mills eventually moved to Sacramento, California, with his wife, Pat, and their three daughters, Christy, Lisa, and Billie JoAnne. He became a successful insurance salesperson, and then became a motivational speaker, running his own organization, the Billy Mills Speakers Bureau. Through this bureau, he works with many charities, such as the Christian Relief Services and the Native American Sports Council.

In addition to his charitable work, Mills has become a quiet advocate for political change. He sees the reservation system under which many Native Americans live as a form of apartheid, and believes that the way Native Americans elect senators and congressional representatives should be reorganized in order to give them fair representation.

However, Mills was opposed to an idea presented by some Native American sports advocates. They suggested that Native Americans have their own sports team that would compete as an independent nation at the Olympics. Mills told Weiner, "As long as we benefit from being citizens of the United States we should compete for the U.S. team."

In 1997, Mills was made a member of the Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame, and in 1999, Mills was inducted into the National Distance Running Hall of Fame in Utica, New York. Of his induction, he told a Runner's World reporter, "I feel very fortunate and very thrilled, because I'm aware of the people who are in there already."


Address: Billy Mills Speakers Bureau, 7760 Winding Way, Suite 722, Fair Oaks, CA 95628. Phone: (916) 965-5738.


(With Nicholas Sparks), Wokini: A Lakota Journey to Happiness and Self-Understanding, Crown, 1994.



"Billy Mills." Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, Book III, edited by Terrie M. Rooney. Detroit: Gale Group, 1998.

"Billy Mills." Encyclopedia of World Biography, Supplement, Volume 19. Detroit: Gale Group, 1999.

"Billy Mills." Notable Native Americans. Detroit: Gale Group, 1995.

Greenspan, Bud. 100 Greatest Moments in Olympic History. General Publishing Group, 1995.


"Billy Mills." People (July 15, 1996): 84.

Bloom, Mark. "The Greatest Upset." Runner's World (August, 1991): 22.

Monaghan, Pat. "Wokini: A Lakota Journey to Happiness and Self-Understanding." Booklist (April 1, 1994): 1407.

Weiner, Jay. "Where Are They Now? After Making His Mark in '64, He's Been Quiet Indian Leader." Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN) (August 2, 1996): 2S.


"Billy Mills." Christian Relief. (November 15, 2002).

"Billy Mills." Running Strong for American Indian Youth. (November 19, 2002).

"Billy Mills." World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame. (November 15, 2002).

"Billy Mills' Story Inspires." Canku Ota (Many Paths) (November 2, 2002). (November 15, 2002).

Distance Running Hall of Fame. (November 19, 2002).

Gambaccini, Peter. "A Brief Chat with Billy Mills."Runner's World (June 11, 1999), (November 15, 2002).

"Running Brave." (November 19, 2002).

Sketch by Kelly Winters

Billy Mills

views updated May 18 2018

Billy Mills

Billy Mills (born 1938) won what sports writers called the most sensational race ever run in Olympic history. A relative unknown, he came from behind to beat world champion runners in the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. Miller later became one of the most noted of motivational speakers.

Mills was born on June 30, 1938 on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The young Native American ran like the wind over the prairies and hills near his Lakota Sioux Reservation home. His mother, who was one quarter Sioux, died when Mills was seven year old. His father, who was three quarters Sioux, died five years later. Native Americans considered him to be of mixed blood. The white world called him a Native American. Mills claimed that running helped him to find his identity and to blunt the pain of rejection.

As a youngster, Mills admired the great war chief, Crazy Horse. This spiritual leader of the Lakota challenged him to follow his dreams, reach for goals, and succeed in life. Crazy Horse was a warrior, who led his life through responsibility, humility, the power of giving, and spirituality. Mills tried to live by the knowledge, the wisdom, and the integrity of Crazy Horse. After breaking many high school track records on the reservation, Mills received a scholarship to attend Kansas University. He then became an officer in United States Marine Corps.

As a young Marine lieutenant, Mills had been allowed to train for the 1964 Olympics, held in Tokyo, Japan. He qualified for the team in both the 10,000-meter race and the marathon, but was not expected to win either race. No American had ever won the 10,000-meter race in the Olympics. But Mills had always lived according to the teachings of his father, who had challenged him to live his life as a warrior and assume responsibility for himself.

Australia's Ron Clarke was world famous as a runner in the 10,000-meter event and was the odds-on favorite to win a gold medal. Mohamed Gammoudi, a Tunisian runner, was expected to finish in second place for the silver medal. Any of the other runners were capable of taking a third place bronze medal, according to the experts. It was thought that none of the other runners could win.

Mills, a believer in visualization or "imagery," did not permit a negative thought to enter his head as he worked toward the biggest race of his life. He had for some time before been visualizing a young Native American boy winning the 10,000-meter event at the 1964 Olympics. He created that picture in his mind over and over again. If a thought about not winning came into his mind, he would spend hours erasing the negativity. There could be only one result!

As Mills lined up, there was only one thing on his mind, and that was to win. The gun cracked and the field broke away from the starting grid. As expected, Clarke and Gammoudi fell into first and second place. Mid-pack jostling and shoving allowed the leaders to pull away and Mills dropped back. It appeared he was out of contention and few paid any attention to the sleek Native American who was well back in the field. If they had looked, they would have seen him running as smoothly as the wind, without effort, in perfect control. Near the end of the race, Clarke and Gammoudi remained in the lead. The Japanese crowd cheered politely at what they had known all along was going to happen.

But suddenly the smooth running Mills stepped up his pace. He was closing on the leaders. The crowd fell silent. Mills increased his smooth, even pace, and drew closer to the leaders. With the three runners speeding down the last home-stretch, Mills made a spectacular, totally unexpected move. He surged in front of Clarke, who was still running in second place, then Gammoudi, who was leading. At the tape, it was Mills, Gammoudi and Clarke. Mills had beaten Gammoudi by three yards and Clarke by a full second. He had completed the race in a new Olympic record time of 28:24.4, a full 46 seconds better than his best previous time.

The crowd went wild with cheering, for they had seen the impossible happen. They had seen an underdog, an unknown, a runner who wasn't given a chance to win, beat the favorite. They had witnessed one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history. After his great running victory at Tokyo, Mills was honored with the warrior name of 'Makata Taka Hela' by the Lakota Nation. It means "love your country" and "respects the earth."

Although he was never sent to Vietnam because of his rigorous training schedule in the Marines, Mills was deeply affected by the many combat deaths of men from his unit. He felt that he could not participate in a sport when people were being killed in Vietnam. Mills finished his Marine Corps tour of duty as a captain, then reentered civilian life as an official of the Department of the Interior. He followed this with a very successful career as an insurance salesman. Mills retired from his insurance business in 1994 and became a motivational speaker.

Mills, who was elected to the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1984, moved with his wife, Pat, and their three daughters, Christy, Lisa, and Billie JoAnne, to Fair Oaks, a Sacramento, California, suburb. He devoted all of his time to speaking to Native American youths and raising money for charities, such as Christian Relief Services.

Further Reading

"Billy Mills, From Out of Nowhere,"

"Billy Mills,"

"Billy Mills,"