Not many people know who Billy Mills is. However, he is the first Native American Olympian runner. William Mervin Mills was born in Pine Ridge, South Dakota on June 30, 1938. He is a member of the group of Oglala Lakota (Sioux) tribe and grew up on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. His story is very inspirational from his early life, through his school years, and his time in the Olympics, particularly because he was Native American.
One of eight children, he lived on one of the poorest reservations in the United States. Mills’ family struggled with hunger, alcoholism, and other health conditions. Tragically, when Mills was seven years old, his mother died. His father, a boxer, died when he was twelve, leaving Billy as an orphan. He was sent to Haskell Institute in Lawrence Kansas. This school was a boarding school for Native Americans run by the Bureau of Affairs.
At Haskell Institute, Mills become involved with sports. He always looked up to his father. While his father was still living, he told Billy to “live his life as a warrior.” This meaning combines physical and mental toughness with assuming responsibility for one’s actions, being humble, and giving back to others. Mills tried out for the boxing team just like his father, and played football. Soon he also discovered his superior ability in running long distances. He eventually earned a full athletic scholarship to the University of Kansas. While he was at KU his cross country team won national titles.
However, life at KU was not all that easy for Mills. He was lonely. People rejected him because he was not fully Native American. “The Indians called me mix blood, and the white world called me Indian.” Billy also said this loneliness fueled his running. “I was running from rejection, being orphaned.” Mills set a recorded in his first 10,000 meter race. From 1958 to 1961 he won a multitude of awards for cross country. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cs47dc-ScQw
Mills tried out for the 1960 Olympics, but sadly did not make the Olympics. After this set back, he lost his motivation. In 1962 he married his college girlfriend, Pat. Mills got enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. While in the Marines, he increased his training from 40 miles to 100 miles in a week. With this training, he was able to run a 4 minute mile, his personal record. He decided to try out for the Olympic Trails in 1964. He finished second with a time of, 29:10.4.This was the best time he had ever run in this event. As a result he made the U.S Olympic team for the 10,000 meter race, however no one paid much attention to him.
The Olympics were held in Tokyo, Japan. In the track world no one had ever heard of a Native American Marine. He was not frightened to compete against any of the world- famous runners. There was a runner from Australia named Ron Clarke, whose personal best was nearly one minute faster than Mills. No American runner had ever won a distance race in the Olympics.
The gun was shot, and they were off. Clarke was up in the front for most of the race, but Mills stayed near his tail as other runners were slowly drifting off. When the runners pasted the ringing bell that signaled their final lap, Mills and Clarke were in the lead with one other runner, Gammoudi. A few seconds later, Clarke pushed Mills two lanes to the outside as Gammoudi cut in front of them. Mills was falling behind Clarke and Gammoudi. With less than 100 yards to go, Mills made a final push and passed Clarke and Gammoudi. Now he was in front. He gave it all he had left in him, and won the gold in the 10,000 meter run! https://www.youtube.com/watchv=vs6G8NfEyVk
Everyone was in shock, even his American Coach did not expect Mills to win. Mills said that he was overlooked as a runner because of the prejudices of this time: “I was caught, as a Native American, in that complexity of how society deals with someone who’s different. Because of that, no coach, trainer, or anyone in the media knew that I went to the Olympic Games ranked eighth in the world.” The U.S Olympic Committee originally refused to provide Mills with shoes for the race. One official said, “We only have enough for those we expect to do well in the race.”
Billy Mills now is involved with the Native American committee today. He is a motivational advocate speaker for Native Americans. Billy has had many bumps in his life time, but has also achieved many great accomplishments. http://indianyouth.org/