Billy Mills and the Miracle 10,000-meter Race Part 3: Wings of an Eagle

 

Billy Mills winning
Billy MIlls winning the 10,000 meter competition at the Tokyo Olympics, from the personal collection of Billy Mills

Billy Mills was 8 when his mother died – bewildered, scared, and angry. His father told little Billy that he had to look beyond his fear and his anger, because those emotions could destroy him. Instead, his father said, “you have broken wings. You need a dream to fix broken wings. Find your dreams son. It is the pursuit of your dreams that will heal you. If you do this you may have wings of an eagle.”

Shortly after that, his father told his son about a book about the Olympics, and told him that “Olympians are chosen by the Gods.” And Mills told me that little Billy liked that thought because if he became an Olympian, if he was chosen by the Gods, “maybe I’d be able to see my mom again.”

Billy Mills is clearly a spiritual person. He knows his parents, both of whom passed away when he was young, are looking over him. He believes in his darkest times, they are there to guide him. When he was attending the University of Kansas, his first attempt to live outside the reservation, he struggled to fit in. Mills told me that at one point in his time at KU he was feeling desperate, in fact, feeling as if the best solution was to take his own life.

Billy Mills on the Podium_Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Agency
Mohammed Gammoudi, Billy Mills and Ron Clarke on the Podium_Tokyo Olympiad 1964, from the book Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Agency

“I was a junior in college, and on the verge of suicide,” he said. “I was about to jump. But I started hearing energy. Underneath my skin, I felt energy that sounded like a word. ‘Don’t.’ It sounded like my dad’s voice.” Mills was shaken out of his desperation by this surprise message from his father. He stepped down and decided that suicide was not the answer. He recalled what his father told him when his mother died – that the pursuit of a dream heals broken souls. And that’s when Mills wrote down his dream. “Gold medal. Olympic 10,000-meter run.”

Mills is running in the 10,000 meter race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He is in the top three, but he is low in energy, at this stage – a product of his low blood sugar condition. With 275 yards to go, he sees his chief competitors, the Australian Ron Clarke and the Tunisian Mohammed Gammoudi, about 10 yards ahead. Mills is in lane 4, and he’s passing stragglers in lane 1, but there’s another straggler in lane 5 – someone he remembers to this day.

Now I have to get by him. A thousands thoughts going through my head. Lift my knees. Lengthen my strides. Pump my arms. I’m doing that but I feel like I’m in slow motion. I move by the guy in lane 5. I glance at him and he glances at me. I see an eagle.

As he describes in this video interview, he believes the straggler could have been a German competitor. While there were two German competitors in the 10k race, their uniforms did not have an eagle insignia. Perhaps it was the lightheadedness that comes from expending every ounce of energy. Perhaps it was the low blood sugar. It does not matter. Mills saw an eagle, and that’s all he needed.

I make one final try coming out of the final curve. 85,000 people cheering, screaming, hearing nothing but my heart. I look as I go by the German and in the center of his singlet is an eagle. “Wings of an eagle!” back to my dad, when I’m small, 9, 10, 11 years of age. “Son you do these things, some day you’ll have wings of an eagle.” I may never be this close again. I’ve got to do it now. Wings of an eagle. And I felt the tape break across my chest.

Mills is the first and only American to win the 10K competition in the Olympics. His victory was a surprise to all, and was an inspiration to people around the world.