Billy Mills was born in 1938 to an Oglala Lakota (Sioux) family and spent his early years on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
But his childhood was marred by tragedy. His sister died when he was just 7 years old, and his mother’s death followed a year later. In the aftermath, he was buoyed by a deepening relationship with his father, who took him on fishing trips and talked with his son about the future.
Then, when Mills was 12 years old, his father died, too.
The upheaval of Mills’ early life does not hint at what he would go on to accomplish: He would earn an athletics scholarship to the University of Kansas, win a gold medal in the 1964 Olympic Games, serve in the military, become a successful businessman and co-found a nonprofit that serves Native American youth.
But without those hardships, he says, he might not have had the fortitude to dream big.
“During tough times, my father would tell me that I needed to have a dream in life, because it’s pursuit of a dream that heals broken souls,” Mills said. “He would say, ‘You have broken wings, and if you follow your dreams, someday you’ll have the wings of an eagle.’”
In 2013 President Barack Obama honored Mills with the Presidential Citizens Medal, and in January of 2014, Mills will receive the NCAA’s highest honor, the Theodore Roosevelt Award. Named after the former president whose concern for the conduct of college athletics led to the formation of the NCAA in 1906, the award is given annually to an individual “for whom competitive athletics in college and attention to physical well-being thereafter have been important factors in a distinguished career of national significance and achievement.”
Mills’ collegiate experience was initially one of extreme cultural shock. After his father died, he spent the remainder of his childhood at the Haskell Indian School in Lawrence, Kan.
He accepted a running scholarship to the University of Kansas, and his arrival marked the first time in his life that he had ever been totally removed from the Native American community.
On campus, the coaches, teammates and some professors he encountered at Kansas helped him to navigate the unfamiliar setting, which he describes as a maze.
“Roads can become misleading, but if you have the right people at the right time giving you direction, you can make good decisions and get through,” Mills said. “Whether or not they were aware of how uncomfortable I felt, I have no idea, but I had teammates and professors step forward to help me make the transition to college from the Native American community, and they truly empowered me.”
Even with that support, Mills faced additional challenges. A type-2 diabetic, Mills often found himself “crashing” during races, feeling far more exhausted than he should, due to low blood sugar.
He also faced blatant racism, being asked to step out of team photos for being “too dark” and having his medical problems attributed to his heritage or the fact that he was an orphan.
The racism nearly drove him to suicide. But Mills says he turned to his memories of his father, who had urged him to find a dream to pursue, a goal to keep him focused.
The collegiate runner set a goal to earn an Olympic gold medal in the 10,000-meter run. Reinvigorated, and with a new aspiration for the future, Mills graduated from Kansas in 1960, then enlisted as a Marine officer and joined the U.S. Marine Corps track and field team.
In 1964 Mills qualified for the Olympics in Tokyo. As an unknown competitor, he made history as the first—and only—American runner to win an Olympic gold medal in the event.
“I just felt that moment was a gift, so I decided then to spend the rest of my life giving back for that one moment in time,” Mills said.
His wife, Patricia, suggested that he honor those who believed in him by passing his inspiration on to younger generations. Mills co-founded Running Strong for American Indian Youth. The organization works to help American Indian youth, increasing their self-esteem and improving their futures.
“We work on reservations, building health clinics and organic gardening projects, some recreation centers, log cabins or homes for the elderly, drilling multitudes of water wells,” Mills said. “I wanted to help other people address poverty, and what I call poverty of dreams; to educate society that we have an obligation to help young people brought into the world to address and to help them avoid poverty of dreams.”
Mills travels the world as a spokesman for the organization.
“There are 350 to 500 million indigenous people worldwide,” Mills said. “And I think, in many ways, I’ve become a very respected Olympian – kind of a global ambassador – toward global unity, through the dignity, character and beauty of diversity, which is the future of human kind.”
On Feb. 15 Mills was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second-highest civilian award in the United States, by President Obama to recognize his work at Running Strong for American Indian Youth.
Mills says he is thankful for the myriad of people who have influenced his life—from the doctor who helped him deal with his diabetes at Kansas and counseled him through the transition to college, to his wife, Patricia, whom he met at Kansas, to the teammate who kindly invited Mills to join his family for Thanksgiving.
Today, he sometimes feels that his work as a traveling spokesman can make him feel detached from the impact his organization has had. The recent recognition he has received has made him feel his work has meaning.
“This year,” Mills said, “I realized my effort was being heard in such a sacred way.”
Mills believes that athletics played an important role in his development, and he encourages current and future student-athletes to seize their opportunities.
“Sports better prepared me for challenges I faced later in life than anything else I could have done at a young age,” Mills said. “Not many people are going to make it to the NBA. Not many people are going to make it in the NFL, for example. I would stress getting the best education you can, utilizing sports as a catalyst, and in your journey of sport, reach within the depths of your capabilities.”
Mills believes today’s youth hold the keys to become the “warriors” of the future for the betterment of humanity.
“It’s their journey, not their destination, that will empower them,” Mills said. “It’s the daily decisions they make in life that will choreograph their destiny.”