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Billy Mills: Hero to Native Americans and Olympians everywhere

Stunning 1964 Olympic victory has led to a lifetime of humanitarian achievement

Billy Mills began life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. His Lakota name, “Makoce Te’hila,” means “Loves His Country” or, more traditionally, “Respects the Earth.” Orphaned by age 13, he faced poverty and discrimination but drew strength from running. Nothing has stopped him since.

Today the Olympic icon and humanitarian stands as a testament to the power of dreams and belief in self. 

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, travel to more than 150 countries 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.’”

Mills’ collegiate experience was initially one of extreme cultural shock. His arrival at the University of Kansas marked the first time he had been completely separated from the Native American community.  He describes the unfamiliar setting 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.  He also faced blatant racism, the three-time cross country All-American even being asked to step out of team photos for being “too dark.”

Feeling part of neither the “white” world nor the “Indian” world, he was nearly driven to suicide. During these tough times, he turned to memories of his father, who had urged him to find a dream to pursue and a goal to keep him focused.

Mills chose to set his sights on earning gold in the Olympic 10,000-meter run. Reinvigorated, Mills graduated from Kansas in 1962, was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Marines and shortly thereafter began running for the U.S. Marine Corps track and field team.

Billy Mills, University of Kansas

In the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Mills ran a personal best by 46 seconds in the 10,000-meter final, resulting in a stunning come-from-behind victory and a new Olympic record.  Runner’s World Magazine chose his victory as the second-greatest Olympic moment of the 20th century. He remains the only American to win Olympic gold at 10,000 meters and was the first American to be ranked No. 1 in the world at that distance. 

After a running career that included seven U.S. track and field records and one world record, Mills left the Marines and became a successful businessman. But something was nagging him.

In thinking about his gold medal, “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.  When his wife, Patricia, suggested he honor those who believed in him by passing his inspiration on to younger generations, Mills co-founded Running Strong for American Indian Youth. Since 1986, the foundation has raised millions of dollars to benefit Native American communities by providing shelter, running water, medical care, academic scholarships and other basic needs.

Mills travels more than 300 days every year promoting global unity. In doing so, the former student-athlete has become a healing bridge between people of different cultures, beliefs and religions.

“There are 350 to 500 million indigenous people worldwide,” he 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.”

Mills believes 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.”

In 2013, President Barack Obama presented Mills the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second-highest civilian award in the United States, to recognize his work at Running Strong for American Indian Youth.  He is also the 2014 recipient of the NCAA’s top honor, the Theodore Roosevelt Award.

The recent recognition has made him feel his work has meaning, saying he realizes his “effort was being heard in such a sacred way.”


Billy Mills

Hometown:  Pine Ridge, South Dakota

Current City:  Fair Oaks, California

School:  Bachelor’s degree in education, 1962, University of Kansas 

Sport:  Cross country and track

Fun fact:  Mills is a member of five halls of fame, among them the U.S. Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame, U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame and the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame.

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