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Billy Mills: Wings Of An Eagle

By Peggy Shinn | Oct. 14, 2014, 1:49 p.m. (ET)

Billy Mills reacts after finishing first in the men's 10,000-meter at the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo on Oct. 14, 1964.

Late in the day on Oct. 14, 1964, Billy Mills — an unheralded runner from the U.S. — came from behind to win gold in the men’s 10,000-meter at the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games. It is known as one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history.

Runner-up Mohamed Gammoudi from Tunisia later said Mills was “like an arrow being shot out of a bow” in the finish stretch.

The win was a surprise to everyone but Mills, who for years had written “Gold medal, 10,000-meter run” in his workout journal. The night before the race, he added, “God has given me the ability, the rest is up to me. Believe, believe, believe.”

The win that day was a gift, Mills said, and since then, he has tried to give back.

“In my own way, I’m trying to promote the virtues and values that I learned from that journey,” he said recently by phone from his home in California. “It’s the journey, not the destination, that empowers us. It’s the daily decisions we make in life, not just the talent we possess, that choreographs our destiny.”

For Mills, it is a journey partly rooted in sadness.

* * *

A Lakota Sioux, Mills was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1938. His mother died when he was 9 years old, and Mills’ father recognized that her death broke Billy’s young wings.

“He would say, ‘If you do these things, son, some day you will have wings of an eagle,’” recalled Mills.

But competing in the Olympic Games was not yet on his radar. Instead, he saw — through the innocent eyes of a 9-year-old — the Olympic Games as a way to reconnect with his mother. While reading a book about the Games, he was struck by a passage that said, “Olympians are chosen by the gods.”

“If I made the Olympic team, if I was chosen by the gods, maybe I’d be able to see my mother again,” young Billy thought.

Three years later, his father died. He had been a powerful spiritual mentor, and the young boy was crushed.

But his spirit would not leave Billy entirely alone in the world.

* * *

By the late 1950s, early 1960s, Billy Mills had established himself as a top distance runner. At the University of Kansas, he was a three-time All-American, placed top-six three times at the NCAA Cross-Country Championships and twice claimed the Big Eight cross-country title. He also helped the Jayhawks to the 1959 and 1960 NCAA Championship crown in outdoor track.

Despite his athletic accolades at KU, Mills often felt alienated. He was one of only a few Native Americans at the university, and back home, he was one of few reaching beyond the reservation’s boundaries and traditions. The civil rights movement was in its infancy in America, and at least once, a photographer asked him to step out of the photo of All-Americans.

Although he had “an incredible support system at Kansas,” he did not feel like he fit in anywhere.

One day during his junior year, he pulled a chair up to a sixth floor window and prepared to jump. But suddenly, he felt an energy that spoke to him: “Don’t.” He started crying and got off the chair. To this day, he is convinced that it was his father’s energy.

Mills grabbed a pen and wrote down his goals: “Gold medal, 10,000-meter run,” and later added, “Make the Olympic team in three events, the 5,000, 10,000, and marathon.”

* * *

After graduating from KU in 1962, Mills married his girlfriend, Pat, took a commission with the U.S. Marines, moved to Camp Pendleton in California, and began training for the 1964 Olympic Games.

In 1963, Mills traveled to Belgium to compete in the 10,000 at a NATO countries competition. Also entered in the race was Mohamed Gammoudi.

With 500 meters to go, Mills made his move and took the lead. But he could not hold off Gammoudi, who passed him with about 150 yards to the finish.

After the race, Gammoudi told Mills through an interpreter, “More speed.”

In the following year, Mills created 10-day training “weeks,” each incorporating a long run and two hard speed workouts. Gammoudi and Mills have been friends since that race.

* * *

Billy Mills smiles on the day of the 10,000-meter race at the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo on Oct. 10, 1964.

At the 1964 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in the Los Angeles Coliseum, Gerry Lindgren and Mills broke free of the pack in the 10,000. Fresh off a win at the USA vs. USSR dual meet in June that year, 18-year-old Lindgren was no doubt the favorite. Mills was unranked. But after working with Earl “Tommy” Thomson — 1920 Canadian Olympic gold medalist in 110-meter hurdles and former U.S. Naval Academy coach — to achieve the Olympic qualifying standard, he knew that his six-mile time, converted to a 10,000-meter time, was faster than Lindgren’s best.

Throughout the Olympic trials 10,000, Lindgren and Mills attacked each other — one surging, then the other. But Mills is hypoglycemic and had yet to figure out how to counteract the effects of low blood sugar late in races. Sometimes he would just fade to the back and not recover.

Lindgren made one final move in the 10,000, and Mills didn’t go with him. Instead, he looked back, realized that he was far ahead of everyone else, and began quietly celebrating. By finishing second, he had secured a spot in the 1964 Olympic 10,000 (as well as the marathon, which he locked up at an earlier Olympic trials; but he did not make it in the 5,000).

At the finish, Mills lifted the shy Lindgren’s arm in the air. But Lindgren pulled it down.

“Billy,” he said. “Every move I made, you covered it. That last move I made, if you covered it, I would not have been able to cover you.”

Mills vowed not to let that happen in Tokyo.

* * *

The morning of the 10,000-meter race at the Tokyo Games, Mills told U.S. teammate Ron Larrieu his race strategy: “I plan to go with the leaders, stay with them, then try to outkick them the last lap.”

What he was not counting on was stragglers. With no prelims to whittle down the field, 38 runners toed the line. By the end of the race, many would be lapped.

From the start, Mills stayed near the front with the favorites like world-record holder Ron Clarke from Australia and defending Olympic champion Pyotr Bolotnikov from the Soviet Union. The pace was quick, and at the 5,000-meter mark, Mills realized that he was running within a few seconds of his fastest-ever 5,000. And he still had 5,000 meters left to run.

As he struggled to hang on, Mills told himself, “I’m prepared to run this fast. I just have not done it in a race before. Don’t panic. Hang on.”

At one point, coming off a curve, Mills almost let up. But he knew his wife, Pat, was sitting 32 rows above the track on that very curve. He couldn’t quit in front of her. He kept going. A couple laps later, he had worked through the pain and was comfortably hanging with the leaders.

On TV, the commentators pointed out, “Billy Mills is in there,” but added that he was  “a man no one expects to win this particular event.”

With two laps to go, it was just Clarke, Gammoudi, Mamo Wolde from Ethiopia and Mills. Clarke looked back. Mills took it as a sign that the Australian world-record holder was worried. In fact, Clarke didn’t even recognize the runners on his heels.

When the bell rang for the last lap, Mills surged by Clarke, but the Australian matched his stride. No worries, thought Mills. For months, he had visualized this very situation: the American on the leader’s shoulder, matching him stride for stride.

As the two men ran up behind a lapped runner, Clarke was boxed in. Rather than slow down, he shoved Mills to the outside so he could get around the slower runner. Mills staggered into Lane 3.

Behind Clarke and Mills, Gammoudi thought, “My poor friend Billy. He is out of the race.”

But Mills quickly recovered and regained Clarke’s shoulder just as Gammoudi moved through, pushing him again, though not as hard. Although he does not blame Clarke — it was the way the race developed — Mills admits that Clarke’s push almost destroyed him.

Suddenly, Gammoudi was 10 yards ahead, with Clarke responding. For Mills, his blood sugar alarm was ringing. Would his year of speed work be able to pay off? Or would he fade to the back?

As they rounded the final corner, it was Gammoudi, Clarke and Mills spread about 10 yards apart as they laced through lapped runners. Mills rounded the corner in Lane 4. A lapped runner drifted by him to the outside.

Mills was now about 85 yards from the finish line with no one in his path. Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he swears that he saw an eagle in the insignia of the singlet of the lapped runner who had just drifted to the outside.

“It was so powerful to me,” he said. “Not words in my mind but energy flowing through my body. My dad’s words: wings of an eagle, you do these things, and some day you’ll have wings of an eagle.”

Watching Mills sprint — his arms pumping, his stride lengthened — it really does seem as if he has wings on his feet. He told himself that he would never be this close again, that he had to go now.

As the finish line neared, a thought crossed his mind: “I’m going to win, but I may not cross the finish line first.”

Years later, he finally realized what this meant.

“It was two races,” he said. “The first race was healing a broken soul, and the second race, I was still able to become the Olympic champion.”

Even though he felt the tape across his chest, Mills still couldn’t believe he had won. He asked an official if he had miscounted the laps. No, the official assured him. Mills raised a finger and asked, “Number one?”

Yes, nodded the official, then said, “Olympic champion.”

Mills went to look for the lapped runner with the eagle on this jersey. He found him — likely either Siegfried Herrmann or Arthur Hannemann from Germany. The insignia of his jersey had no eagle on it.

* * *

Since retiring from running, Mills has dedicated his life to giving back. He’s visited 108 countries, promoting “global unity through the beauty, dignity and character of global diversity.”

In 1986, with Gene Krizek from Christian Relief Services, he founded Running Strong for American Indian Youth. Initially, Running Strong's programs provided aid with food and nutrition, women and children’s health, education, and seasonal demands on the Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River Reservations in South Dakota.

Since then, programs have expanded dramatically, and Mills has helped bring dialysis clinics to several Native American communities, where Type II diabetes is epidemic. He has also humbled to help with organic gardening projects — “where people are honoring themselves, their bodies, minds and spirits by choosing a more healthy lifestyle.” And he is inspired by the many donors who have supported Running Strong.

U.S. President Barack Obama presents Billy Mills with the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation's second-highest civilian honor, at the White House Feb. 15, 2013 in Washington, D.C. 

In 2012, President Barack Obama presented Mills with the Presidential Citizens Medal for his work with Running Strong.

Also in 2012, Mills finally watched another American man stand on the 10,000-meter Olympic podium. Mills never thought it would take 48 years. He thought Steve Prefontaine and Craig Virgin would join him as U.S. Olympic 10,000-meter medalists. But Prefontaine died tragically in 1975, and Virgin’s best chance of medaling would have been at the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games.

But Mills is emphatic that the U.S. women not be overlooked. At the 1992 Barcelona Games, he watched Lynn Jennings run the 10,000 and cried when she earned the bronze medal. In 2008 in Beijing, Shalane Flanagan ran beautifully, he said, and also claimed a bronze medal in the 10,000.

But it wasn’t until the 2012 London Games that a U.S. man once again achieved a medal in the 10,000. In “probably one of the greatest races” he ever saw, Mills watched Galen Rupp sprint from fourth into second in the final 200 meters of the 10,000. Rupp finished just behind Great Britain’s Mo Farah for the silver medal.

Mills had presented Rupp with his medal at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials and, because of Rupp’s speed work with coach Alberto Salazar, thought that Rupp had a good chance of medaling in London.

Mills will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his gold-medal run by dining with Pat, his children and several of his grandchildren.

Later this month, he will travel to Washington, D.C., where the Anti-Defamation League In Concert Against Hate is honoring Mills.

Then, in six years, when he will be 82, Mills plans to return to Tokyo for the Games of the XXXII Olympiad.

“I plan to continue and close out my journey in 2020,” Mills said, “when I take my family to Tokyo to see where a very sacred journey started for my wife and I.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.