By Brian Hendrickson
Perceptions used to hurt Billy Mills, make him feel devalued, even led him to thoughts of suicide. Then the former All-American distance runner at Kansas realized he could draw strength from them.
Now an inspiring speaker and humanitarian, Mills grew up in a time when his American Indian heritage made him a target for racism. He was excluded from team photos and fraternities, making him question if the value of his life was too low to continue. Then, after winning a gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, he was greeted as an American hero, holder of one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history — one that became a catalyst for a lifetime of humanitarian work.
The difference before and after the race lay in people’s perceptions of him, Mills said. That realization still hangs with him alongside the elation of victory. He now preaches the lessons of that moment. He promotes the value of embracing the virtues of global diversity, and how people’s perceptions of other cultures — as he experienced 49 years ago — still prevent the world from becoming more connected. Mills has traveled to more than 100 countries spreading his message of unity, and received some of the highest awards American citizens can receive.
On Thursday, the NCAA added to those honors by dedicating a room at its national office to Mills, continuing the organization’s tradition of recognizing athletes who have gone beyond sport to make a positive impact on society and people from all walks of life.
On Thursday, the NCAA added to those honors by dedicating a room at its national office to Mills, continuing the organization’s tradition of recognizing athletes who used their sport to cultivate leadership skills that made a difference in their communities.
“Billy Mills’ accomplishments on and off the track are nothing short of amazing and certainly the stuff of dreams,” said NCAA President Mark Emmert. “His message of unity is powerful. It reflects the values of the NCAA, and we hope that this inspiring message of hope propels others to do great things.”
Mills’ story started in one of the poorest communities in America: The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. His mother died when he was 8 years old, and his father followed her four years later. Before he died, Mills’ father advised him to look deep in his soul and see past the anger of racism and pain of losing his mother, and find a dream to guide him.
“You need a dream to heal a broken soul,” Mills’ father told him.
But dreams weren’t easily supported for American Indians in the 1950s and 60s, a time when America was experiencing turbulent social change during the Civil Rights Movement. But Mills said American Indians didn’t feel included in that movement, and during three seasons at Kansas, Mills said he was not allowed to join a fraternity and could only walk on three streets in Lawrence, Kan., without a pass.
Feeling like a social outcast drove Mills to thoughts of suicide. Three times in college he was asked by a photographer to step out of a team photograph. Though each time a teammate insisted he step back in, the feelings of exclusion eventually broke his spirit.
One day, Mills returned to a hotel room and prepared himself to jump from his window. But before he could, Mills heard a voice speak from inside him, urging him not to jump. He swore it was the voice of his father, who once told him one day he would have wings of an eagle if he could heal his broken soul. Mills needed a dream to heal his soul, his father had told him.
So for the first time, Mills wrote his dream down on paper: winning an Olympic gold medal in the 10,000 meters.
“The creator has given me the ability,” he wrote. “Believe, believe, believe.”
After being commissioned in the U.S. Marine Corp after college, Mills joined the U.S. Marine Corp Track and Field Team and qualified for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He qualified for the 10,000-meter finals nearly a minute slower than record-holder Ron Clarke of Australia and hardly drew notice in a field packed with former gold medalists and record holders. Then Mills blew past Clarke and other favored runners on the final stretch, beating his personal best time by 46 seconds to become the only American to ever win that event.
As he made his move, Mills looked briefly to a German runner and saw an eagle on his chest. He thought of his father’s words about having wings of an eagle.
“I may never get this close again. I need to do it now,” Mills told himself before making his remarkable kick to what Runner’s World magazine later named the second-greatest Olympic Moment of the 20th Century.
He tracked down the German runner after the race to tell him how the eagle on his chest inspired him to victory. But there was no eagle on the runner’s jersey. It was the perception of the eagle that willed Mills to victory.
“Perceptions can create us; perceptions can destroy us,” Mills told the NCAA staff Thursday. “It’s how we deal with perceptions, individually and collectively, that makes a difference.”
That message followed Mills through the years that followed. He felt his victory was a gift from a higher power. And in the Lakota culture, such gifts of empowerment must be honored by giving back.
So Mills channeled his athletic achievements into a lifetime of leadership. In 1986, Mills partnered with Christian Relief Services to start Running Strong for Native American Youth, a charity that helped drill wells, build homes, develop food services, establish medical clinics and youth centers for American Indian families, and preserve their language and culture.
The charity’s success was the start of a new career that made Mills and his life story a healing bridge that connected cultures. He continues to travel up to 300 days every year to promote his message of valuing global unity through the dignity, character and beauty of global diversity. And he urges the people he meets to look beyond the perceptions they hold of other cultures and see the beauty and virtues in global diversity.
“It brought me to a very powerful understanding that it’s the journey, not the destination, which empowers us,” Mills said of his athletics career. “It’s the daily decisions we make in life, not just talent we possess, that choreograph our destiny. That has proven over and over again in my business and relationships. They’ve proven to be so true over and over again that, they’ve kind of become a vision and a mission statement to my existence.”
As he spreads that message, the man who was once allowed limited access to the streets of Lawrence has received the highest awards a United States citizen can receive. In February, President Barack Obama presented Mills with the Presidential Citizen’s Medal. He has also been awarded with Kansas’ Distinguished Service Citation, the school’s most distinguished alumni award.
Representations of those awards — flanked by paintings by his wife, artist Pat Mills — now decorate the Billy Mills Room at the NCAA National Office, presenting a timeline of a journey to overcome others’ perceptions of himself, and teaching others how to do the same.
“The gold medal, it represents my journey,” Mills said. “The gold medal has been a catalyst to do so many more significant things in life than winning the gold medal. But I’ll never forget that moment.”