David Freeze column: Meeting an American hero, Billy Mills

  • Posted: Monday, November 4, 2013 12:39 a.m.
David Freeze/For the Salisbury Post
Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills spoke in Albemarle last week. Mills is the only American ever to win the 10,000 meter run in the Olympics.
David Freeze/For the Salisbury Post Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills spoke in Albemarle last week. Mills is the only American ever to win the 10,000 meter run in the Olympics.

Only a few times in life do we get the chance to meet someone who is almost bigger than life. Last week in Albemarle, I had one of those opportunities.

I got to meet a true American hero, one of just a handful that I have shaken hands with. I met Richard Petty and Mickey Mantle, and running heroes Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter. But none of them made the impression on me that Billy Mills did.


Norwood Dental Clinic of Albemarle invited Mills to town, and the event was hosted by the Stanly County Senior Center. A large crowd of all ages turned out to meet and hear Mills tell his story. I was the guest of Vac and Dash, a running and vacuum store on Main Street in Albemarle. Mills’ story touched my heart in a way that few others have.

Granted that most Americans might not know who Mills is, I am sure he is someone that we all can learn many lessons from. Billy Mills won the 10,000 meter run in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, one of the greatest upsets in American sports history. Mills is the only American to ever win this prestigious event. He also qualified for the Olympic marathon the same year, a feat that would be considered impossible today.

His story was made famous by the 1983 popular movie “Running Brave,” starring Robbie Benson as Mills. I saw the movie years ago and loved it, but hadn’t watched it again. I plan to order my own copy today.

Mills is a Sioux (Lakota) Indian. His struggles to overcome his childhood were enough to grab my attention immediately. Mills lost his mother at age 8, and his father at age 12. He had to leave the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and ended up at Haskell Indian School in Kansas.

At age 9, Mills read his first Olympic book, one that stated that Olympians were chosen by the gods. As a youngster, he began to read that the journey was more important than the destination. His dad taught Mills that he should find his dream and learn that the pursuit of the dream would heal any anger, hate and jealousy encountered along the way.

“Find the strength to have wings of eagles,” said his dad. Mills began to pursue the dream of being an Olympian.

One especially interesting story came from Mills’ time at Haskell Indian School. Mills and a friend knew they needed to find a summer job to earn some money for school clothes and supplies. No one would hire them locally, so they went to Nebraska to find work at a grain elevator.

The boys also couldn’t find anyone to rent them a room, but did find a kindly farmer who offered them a place to stay. The farmer had 10 to 12 junked cars and let each boy select one of them to sleep in. Mills chose a Hudson Hornet and his friend picked a Cadillac.

The farmer brought them meals and water, and allowed them to bathe in the creek. The boys worked from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., after which Mills ran for an hour before sleeping for part of the day. Just three weeks of this provided the money that they needed, and back to school they went.

After earning a scholarship to Kansas University, Mills went on to be named an All-American three times. Even with these accomplishments, Mills wasn’t allowed in the team photo because he was an Indian. He remembered that the same photographer took the team photo each year, and finally in his senior year, Mills stood up to him and stayed in the photo.

The scenario bothered Mills so much that he went back to his room crying and considered jumping out the window and committing suicide. He heard his dad’s voice saying, “Don’t! You need a dream to heal a broken soul.”

Mills went on to graduate college. He was told, “You can’t join a fraternity because you are an Indian.” Mills then became a Marine officer. The Olympics loomed ahead as the chance to fulfill his dream. It reads as one of the greatest stories I have ever heard.

While Mills had made the Olympic team, the top American hopeful in the 10,000 meter race was Gerry Lindgren. When Lindgren went down with an injury, the team trainer said, “All we have left is Mills.”

Another open conversation between top foreign athletes concluded, “There is not an American alive tough enough to win the Olympic 10,000.” Even on the bus ride to the Olympic stadium, a Polish girl named a few favorites for the race and said, “USA, who do you think will win the 10,000?” Mills answered, “I am going to win.” The Polish girl had nothing else to say to him.

Once the race started, Mills realized that he was running too fast and had nearly equaled his fastest 5,000 meter time at halfway, though he still had 3.1 miles to go to the finish.

“I thought of quitting, just walking off the course. I didn’t feel that good and it would be easy to walk off into the infield,” he said. Mills would later find out that he was Type 2 diabetic, causing him blurred vision and shakiness.

But Mills didn’t quit. Out of 80,000 spectators, Mills spotted his wife about 30 rows up as he rounded a curve. She was crying, and Mills didn’t know why. He continued to pound out the laps and led the field as the race entered the last lap.

Two runners shoved him, and Mills fell to third and stayed there till 85 meters from the finish. Mills closed the gap and saw an eagle on the chest of the leading German runner. Noticing that sign, Mills suddenly sprinted past the other two runners in the last 30 yards of the race, as if on wings of eagles, to stun the crowd and win the Olympic gold.

After the race, a shocked finish line official asked Mills, “Who are you?” His time of 28 minutes and 24 seconds was the fastest ever by an American. Mills sought out the German runner to congratulate him and realized that he didn’t have an eagle on his chest after all.

With grace and humbleness, Mills closed his talk last week with several statements concerning his life lessons learned:

• Perceptions we create can destroy us.

• You have to find a dream to pursue.

• Choreograph your journey using bravery, fortitude, wisdom, generosity.

• It’s the journey, not the destination. Find the incredible passion within yourself.

• With achievement comes honors and responsibilities.

• Work for global unity. We are all related.

Billy Mills has been awarded five doctorates and the Presidential Citizenship Medal. He has worked the last 26 years for his own foundation, Running Strong. Billy Mills is now 75 years old, but looks 20 years younger and has completed 60,000 running miles.

It was a true honor to shake the hand of an American hero.

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