Tokyo, Japan, October 14, 1964: U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Billy Mills crosses the finish line in what may have been the biggest upset of the 1964 Olympics, a record-setting triumph in the 10,000-meter race.
Billy Mills was born on June 30, 1938 in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. He is an Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Indian and he was raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Billy’s given Lakota name is Makata Taka Hela which means “love your country” or more traditionally translated, “respects the earth”.
Billy grew up in poverty and was orphaned at the age of 12. He turned to sports as a positive focus in his life and took up running while attending the Haskell Institute, an Indian boarding school in Lawrence, Kansas. Billy discovered that he had a talent for distance running and he broke a number of high school track records. In the late 1950s he attended the University of Kansas on an athletic scholarship.
At the University of Kansas Billy continued to improve as a distance runner. He was named a NCAA All-America cross country runner three times and in 1960 he won the individual title in the Big Eight cross country championship. The University of Kansas track team, coached by Bill Easton, won the 1959 and 1960 outdoor national championships. Billy graduated with a B.S. in physical education.
After graduation Billy was commissioned as a lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. He focused on military life and did not train for a brief period, but soon he returned to running and posted times good enough to qualify for the 1964 Olympics. After training for 18 months Billy made the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team in the 10,000 meters and the marathon.
No American had ever won the 10,000 meter race in an Olympics. Billy Mills’ qualifying time was almost a full minute slower than the favorite’s, Ron Clarke of Australia. The pre-race media coverage focused on Clarke and his expected duel with Mohammad Gammoudi of Tunisia. Billy went largely un-noticed. The field for 10,000 meter the final included many Olympic gold medalists and world record holders.
Billy set the Olympic 10K record at 28:24.4, almost 50 seconds faster than his previous best time. Mills also competed in the 1964 Olympic marathon and placed 14th. To date, no other American has won a gold medal in the 10,000 meters.
In 1965 he set U.S. records for the 10,000 meters and the three mile, and he set a world record in the six mile run at the AAU championships.
Mills finished his career in the U.S. Marine Corps as an officer assigned to the Department of the Interior. He later became a successful life insurance salesman, then switched careers to become a professional speaker.
Billy has served on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports and was named one of the Ten Outstanding Young Americans by the Jaycees in 1972. He was selected as a 1990 Healthy American Fitness Leader and was a recipient of the 1993 Distinguished Service Citation, the highest award given by the University of Kansas and it’s Alumni Association.
He was inducted into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame in 1984, and is a member of the United States Track and Field Hall of Fame, the National Distance Running Hall of Fame, the Kansas Hall of Fame, the San Diego Hall of Fame, and the National High School Hall of Fame.
His life story was made into the film, Running Brave, starring Robby Benson and produced by Englander Productions in 1983.
Billy Mills remains active in Native American causes today. He uses his speaking skills as an advocate for and a role model to young Native Americans. He is the national spokesman for Running Strong for American Indian Youth®, a non-profit organization that help communities with self-sufficiency programs, youth activities and cultural identity projects. As the national spokesman for Christian Relief Services, he has helped raise more than $212 million in contributions.
In 1991, Billy wrote Wokini: A Lakota Journey to Happiness and Understanding with Nicholas Sparks, now in it’s fourth printing. He and his wife Patricia live in Sacramento, California, where Mills owns and operates Billy Mills Speakers Bureau.