RAPID CITY – It was standing room only at the Lakota Nations Conference held at the Best Western Ramkota in Rapid City, South Dakota. As 1964 Olympic Gold Medalist Billy Mills shared his story on his historic upset of the 10,000-meter race in Tokyo, Japan. Mills, one of twelve children, was born to Sidney and Grace Mills of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
One would say Mills had been dealt a bad hand in life, especially at the age of 12, when his father passed away. His older sister Margie took on responsibility of raising six of the children. It was agreed that Billy Mills was to attend Haskell Indian University in Lawrence, Kansas. Coach Bill Easton had noted his talent at Cross Country distances and wanted to help develop him. Mills would later be graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Physical Education, and then became a Lieutenant in the Marine Corps.
In 1964, Mills qualified for first team for the 10,000-meter race. It was one of the many times racism had sprung up against him. While posing for a photo, the photographer stated,” you with the darker skin, I want you to step out of the picture.” One of his teammates stated that he would not have his picture taken unless Billy was next to him. Mills asked to not be in the photographed. It was the first time he knew what it was like to be broken. Going back to his motel room he just wanted to go somewhere quiet. At his motel room he was going to jump out of the window. Something said, “Don’t!” It sounded like his dad’s voice.
As the race was close to being underway you could hear a large amount of skepticism from the announcers as the USA had never won the 10,000-meter race. Certainly, Mills was not expected win as that statement was also broadcasted that day. He was not even given a pair of Olympic shoes because they decided he was not considered a winner.
“It takes a dream to heal a broken soul my dad always said,” Mills stated. One of my dreams was to win a Gold Medal.
With the race underway, lap after lap it was my fastest 10,000 meters ever. He decided to take the lead and go one more lap and got it. He took the lead and halfway through the race his eyes were on his wife Patricia, he couldn’t quit. Two laps left to go and the Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila was starting to fade. Mills took the lead as his opponents slowed the pace as they were hurting, too.
“It was at this time front runner Ron Clarke would bump me out of my lane,” Mills said. “I tumbled and almost fell but regained composure and ended up on his inside shoulder.”
Just one year prior to the race Mills was told he was Diabetic and now was the worst time for symptoms to appear. He had decided to let his symptoms go with only 100 meters left: “I didn’t want to stop making contact with Pat. As I passed her at the 90-meter mark, I seen an Eagle. I may win, I may get to the finish line first, I told myself. I can win! I can win! It was a gift from a higher power as I began to pass everyone for the finish line. I wanted my wife Patricia but there were 80,000 people there. As the setting of the World Record time of 28:24 was announced, my wife touched me on the shoulder.”
It was at this time Mills realized Jim Thorpe was “not my hero but one of my Gods.”
Returning to American was hard for Mills. It was an America he was not ready for. Especially after being told, he was already qualified for the Olympics because he was half white. “I am a Christian,” stated Mills. “I hang on to my Lakota values but Christians tell me that I am not saved if I hang on to them. Look at our reservations, there is a meth epidemic in which eight-year-old girls have to find a safe place to stay. Our country today needs the truth. I grew up with Maurice Twiss. Maurice always spoke the truth! He is a man with virtue and truth.”
There was also an honoring of track stars like Jade Ecoffey of Red Cloud Indian School and Mataya Yellow Mule of the University of South Dakota. An additional honoring of Stevens High School Track Coach Paul Hendry was recognized as well.