Billy Mills life and biography

Billy Mills picture, image, poster

Billy Mills biography

Date of birth : 1938-06-30
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Pine Ridge, South Dakota, United States
Nationality : American
Category : Sports
Last modified : 2010-06-24
Credited as : Track and field athlete, ,

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Billy Mills (also known as: William M. Mills, Makata Hela Taka, William Mervin Mills) born June 30, 1938 in Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota, United States is an American track and field athlete.

Lakota Sioux runner Billy Mills was responsible for one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history. A complete unknown in the track-and-field world, Mills outran a field of international track stars to win the gold medal in the 10,000-meter race in the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Mills's win was the first gold medal by any American in this event, and was a particular source of pride for Native Americans. Interestingly, the only other American ever to medal in the event was another Native American, Louis Tewanima, a Hopi Indian, who won silver in 1912.

"Live Your Life as a Warrior"

Born William Mervin Mills on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1938, Mills was one of eight children. The reservation, then as now, was one of the poorest districts in the United States, and residents often struggled with hunger, diabetes, alcoholism, and other health conditions. Mills's family was no exception. His mother, who was one-quarter Lakota Sioux, died when he was seven years old. His father, a boxer who was three-quarters Lakota, died when he was twelve. After being orphaned, Mills was sent to the Haskell Indian School in Lawrence, Kansas. This was a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

At the school, Mills became involved in sports. His father had told him to live his life as a warrior. This meant combining physical and mental toughness with assuming responsibility for one's actions, being humble, and giving back to others. Mills wanted to be like his father, so he tried out for the boxing team, and he also played football. He was small and thin, 5 foot 2 inches tall and only 104 pounds, but he liked the discipline that football involved. He was not interested in track, and thought of it as a sport for sissies. However, he eventually tried running, and found that it involved a level of discipline, training, and mental focus as rigorous as that needed for football. In addition, his build was more suited to running. He soon became a top runner, and when he graduated from Haskell in 1958, he received a full athletic scholarship to the University of Kansas.

At Kansas, Mills had little contact with his long-scattered siblings, and he was lonely and isolated. According to a writer in Contemporary Heroes and Heroines Mills later said that this loneliness fueled his running: "I was running from rejection, from being orphaned. . . . The Indians called me mixed blood. The white world called me Indian. I was running in search of my identity. I was running to find Billy." In his first 10,000-meter race, Mills set a conference record. In 1958 and 1959 he was All-American in cross country; in 1960 he won the individual title in the Big Eight Conference cross-country tournament; and in 1961 he was conference champion in the 2-mile. The Kansas team won the NCAA outdoor national championships in 1959 and 1960.

Despite these wins, Mills did not receive any recognition. He did not qualify for the 1960 Olympics, and he lost his motivation, running poorly, sometimes dropping out of races.

At the end of his senior year, in 1962, Mills married his college girlfriend, Pat. At the same time, he became an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, based at Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego. In the Marines, his running was encouraged, and he increased his training from 40 miles a week to 100 miles a week. With this grueling regimen, he won the inter-service 10,000-meter race in Germany. His time was 30.08. He also ran 4:08 in the mile, a personal record.

In 1964, Mills went to the Olympic Trials, finishing second, behind Gerry Lindgren. His time, 29:10.4, was the best he had ever run in the event, but it was almost a minute slower than that of the other runners who qualified for the event. Although Mills made the Olympic team, no one paid much attention to him.

"My Indianness Kept Me Striving"

Later that year, Mills went to Tokyo, Japan to compete. No one in the track world had heard of this Native American Marine, and he was not considered as competition by any of the world-famous runners there. In addition, no American athlete had ever won a distance race in the Olympics. Even the American coach did not expect Mills to win, and was not sure if any American athletes would even place in the event. Ironically, Mills was actually ranked eighth in the world at the time, an immense achievement that should have forewarned coaches and competitors. In an interview with Runner's World, Mills said that he was overlooked as a runner because of the prejudices of his 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."

Indeed, the U.S. Olympic Committee initially refused to provide Mills with shoes for the race; according to an article on the Sports Humanitarian Web page, one official said, "We only have enough for those we expect to do well." Mills borrowed shoes and got ready for the race.

Of all the thirty-six runners in the event, Australia's Ron Clarke was expected to win. Tunisian Mohamed Gammoudi was expected to place second, and any of the other runners could have taken the bronze medal. Clarke and Gammoudi were the only runners who were believed capable of winning.

Mills, who believed in the value of positive mental imagery, ignored these predictions. During his training, he had visualized a young Native American runner winning the 10,000 meters, over and over again, erasing any images of loss.

As the runners lined up on the wet track, Mills continued to focus on winning. After the starting gun sounded, Clarke and Gammoudi took first and second place, with the other runners behind them in a mixed pack. Mills stayed up with the rest of the pack, and as the group entered the last 300 yards, Mills took the lead. Gammoudi jostled Clarke, and Clarke elbowed Mills, forcing him to stumble and lose 20 yards.

The crowd watched, cheering, as Clarke and Gammoudi continued in the lead, as predicted.

According to Bud Greenspan in 100 Greatest Moments in Olympic History, Mills decided he still had a chance to win. "So I started driving. They were fifteen yards in front of me, but it seemed like fifty yards. Then I kept telling myself, 'I can win . . . I can win . . . I can win . . .' Mills surged forward, passing Gammoudi and Clarke, and the crowd fell silent, shocked at this unexpected comeback.

Mills finished three yards ahead of Gammoudi, who took second place, with a time of 28:24.4, a new Olympic record, forty-six seconds better than his best time to date. A writer in Contemporary Heroes and Heroines quoted Mills as saying later, "My Indianness kept me striving to take first and not settle for less in the last yards of the Olympic race. I thought of how our great chiefs kept on fighting when all the odds were against them as they were against me. I couldn't let my people down."

After the race, according to Mark Bloom in Runner's World, reporters asked Clarke if he had been worried about Mills beating him. Clarke replied, "Worried about him? I never heard of him." And, according to an article about Mills on the Sports Humanitarian Web site, he was so little-known that an official approached Mills after the race and asked, "Who are you?"

Mills' win was voted the Associated Press "Upset of the Year" for 1964. That was the same year that African-American boxer Cassius Clay (who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali) beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title, an event often considered one of the biggest upsets of all time; the fact that Mill's win took precedence over Clay's shows the impact it had on sports reporters at the time.

Although Mills also ran the Olympic marathon, he finished in 14th place. He told a Runner's World writer that he thinks he had the potential to do well in that event, but that he did not do the right type of training. In addition, during the race, he did not drink enough water. Although he was in fourth place at mile 21 of the 26.2-mile race, he became dehydrated, and when he did drink, his specially concocted beverage tasted so bad that he couldn't swallow it. By mile 24.5 he was badly dehydrated, and hit what marathoners call "the wall," a state of exhaustion in which the athlete struggles to run at all, let alone with any speed.

Makata Taka Hela

Mills reacted modestly and with great dignity to all the media attention that was focused on him after his 10,000-meter win. He took a tour to more than fifty countries, emphasizing his drive to win and his pride in his Native American heritage. In an article in Biography Resource Center, Mills said, "I wanted to make a total effort, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Even if I lost, with this effort I believed that I would hold the greatest key to success."

In response, Mills's tribe, the Lakota, honored him with traditional gifts, made him a warrior, and gave him a Lakota name, Makata Taka Hela, which means "respects the earth" or "loves his country." He became a hero for Native American youth on his home reservation at Pine Ridge. Mills typically downplayed his own accomplishments, often saying that other Native American people were more talented than he was, and simply needed opportunity to achieve their goals.

After his Olympic win, Mills continued to train. He set a world record in the six-mile run in 1965, with a time of 27:11.6, and set American records in the 10,000-meter run and the 3-mile run. He also continued to serve in the Marines. At the time, the Vietnam War was at its height. Mills felt that he could not indulge himself in running for sport when his contemporaries were fighting and being killed. Although the Marines never sent him to Vietnam, he was deeply saddened by the deaths of men in his unit. He finished his Marine career as a captain, then worked for the Department of the Interior.

In 1968, Mills tried out for the Olympic team, but missed making the team because of a technical flaw on his application form. He still ran in the qualifying race, and beat the official "winner"--who did go to the Games--by thirteen seconds.

This experience left Mills bitter at the fact that red tape could keep him out of the Olympics. However, as before, he moved on with his life instead of remaining discouraged. According to a writer in Contemporary Heroes and Heroines he said, "A man has a lot to do with deciding his own destiny. I can do one of two things--go through life bickering and complaining about the raw deal I got, or go back into competition to see what I can do."

Mills' Olympic win was the inspiration for a 1983 movie, Running Brave, which Mills wrote with his wife Pat. The film, starring Robby Benson as Mills, was produced by Englander Productions.

In 1984, Mills was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. He told Jay Weiner in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "The first thing I think of when I think Olympics is that it shows how there can be unity through diversity. It's such a powerful thing."

Mills eventually moved to Sacramento, California, with his wife, Pat, and their three daughters, Christy, Lisa, and Billie JoAnne. He became a successful insurance salesperson, and then became a motivational speaker, running his own organization, the Billy Mills Speakers Bureau. Through this bureau, he works with many charities, such as the Christian Relief Services and the Native American Sports Council.

In addition to his charitable work, Mills has become a quiet advocate for political change. He sees the reservation system under which many Native Americans live as a form of apartheid, and believes that the way Native Americans elect senators and congressional representatives should be reorganized in order to give them fair representation.

However, Mills was opposed to an idea presented by some Native American sports advocates. They suggested that Native Americans have their own sports team that would compete as an independent nation at the Olympics. Mills told Weiner, "As long as we benefit from being citizens of the United States we should compete for the U.S. team."

In 1997, Mills was made a member of the Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame, and in 1999, Mills was inducted into the National Distance Running Hall of Fame in Utica, New York. Of his induction, he told a Runner's World reporter, "I feel very fortunate and very thrilled, because I'm aware of the people who are in there already."

In addition to his own speaking work, Mills is also the national spokesperson for Running Strong for American Indian Youth, a charitable organization that helps poor Native American people meet their needs for food, health care, clothing, water, and shelter, and teaches them how they can become self-sufficient and take pride in their heritage. In addition, the organization sponsors young Native American runners and encourages them to succeed. On the Running Strong for American Indian Youth Web page, an article about Mills explained, "In Lakota culture, someone who has achieved success would have a 'giveaway' to thank the support system of family and friends who helped him achieve his goal. Billy's work with Running Strong is his way of giving something back to American Indian people." In People, a reporter quoted Mills as saying, "I've designed my life so that I can continue to give."

In addition to his work as a speaker, Mills teamed up with writer Nicholas Sparks to write Wokini: A Lakota Journey to Happiness and Understanding. In the book, which is a parable of a young man's spiritual journey, a young man is given a mysterious scroll by his father after his sister dies. Through the teachings in the scroll, he learns to move through his grief and pain and find happiness and spiritual insight. In Booklist, reviewer Pat Monaghan called it "an optimistic book likely to appeal widely." By 2002, the book had gone through four printings.


1958-59, All-American in cross-country; Kansas team wins NCAA outdoor national championships; 1960, Winner, individual title in Big Eight Conference cross-country tournament; 1961, Big Eight Conference champion, 2-mile race; 1964, Wins Olympic gold medal in Olympics, in a startling upset; sets new Olympic record; 1965, Sets world record in 6-mile run with a time of 27:11.6; sets American records in the 10,000 meters and the 3-mile run; 1984, Inducted into U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame; 1997, Inducted into Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame; 1999, Inducted into Distance Running Hall of Fame.


* 1938 Born June 30, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota
* 1958-62 Attends University of Kansas in Lawrence; becomes a top runner
* 1958-59 All-American in cross-country; Kansas team wins NCAA outdoor national championships
* 1960 Winner, individual title in Big Eight Conference cross-country tournament
* 1960 Attempts to qualify for Olympics, but does not make the team
* 1961 Conference champion, 2-mile race
* 1962 Marries his college sweetheart, Pat
* 1962 Joins Marine Corps
* 1964 Makes Olympic team, but his achievements are largely ignored
* 1964 Wins Olympic gold medal in Olympics, in a startling upset; sets new Olympic record
* 1965 Sets world record in 6-mile run with a time of 27:11.6; sets American records in the 10,000 meters and the 3-mile run
* 1968 Attends Olympic trials and beats the "winner" by 13 seconds, but is disqualified because of application form errors
* 1983 Running Brave, a film version of Mills's life, is released
* 1984 Inducted into U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame
* 1980s-present Works as motivational speaker, author, and philanthropist
* 1997 Inducted into Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame
* 1999 Inducted into Distance Running Hall of Fame


* (With Nicholas Sparks), Wokini: A Lakota Journey to Happiness and Self-Understanding, Crown, 1994.

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