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.

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Billy Mills and Ron Clarke in 10000 meter run_The Olympic Century - XVIII Olympiad - Volume 16
Billy Mills (center) and Ron Clarke (right) in 10000 meter run, from the book The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad – Volume 16

They met in London at the 2012 Olympics – old friends, old rivals. Mohammed Gammoudi from Tunisia and Billy Mills of the United States had raced against each other in an epic 10,000-meter race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, in which Mills came from behind to win in stirring fashion. American Olympians in particular remember that moment, whether they watched it live or on television, as if it were yesterday.

Gammoudi asked Mills if he remembered what he told him in Belgium. The two faced off in a 10,000 meter race in Belgium in which Gammoudi won. Gammoudi gave his old friend advice after the race – “more speed”. In other words, Mills told me he needed to “maintain a very fast pace, being right on the edge, just before tightening up. Maintaining a maximum pace, but still being able to sprint. I would practice running as fast as I could go without losing composure.”

Mohammed  Ghamouddy Ron Clarke and Billy MIlls in 10000 meters_Bi to Chikara
Mohammed Gammoudi Ron Clarke and Billy MIlls in 10000 meters_Bi to Chikara

When Mills and Gammoudi met in Tokyo in October, 1964, they embraced as old friends even though they had met only three times. Mills said they respected each other, and hoped that both of them would ultimately celebrate on the victory stand. But so too thought Ron Clarke, their biggest rival in this competition, and the 10,000 meter world record holder.

At that time, Clarke is world famous, and expected to win. Nobody knows Billy Mills.

But with only two laps to go, Mills is still on Ron Clarke’s shoulder. Hypoglycemic, blood sugar nearly depleted, Mills feels he’s tiring. Then, Clarke looks back, and Mills takes that as a sign – “My God, he’s worried! If I could just stay with him, I have a chance. I have a chance.”

In the final lap, somehow, the Australian Clarke is boxed in front by a runner who’s been lapped, and Mills to his right. “I have Ron boxed in perfectly,” Mills explained of one of the most dramatic moments of the XVIII Olympiad. “He nudged me a little. I nudged him back. He then put his hand under my elbow and pushed me out. I thought I was going to fall. I went out and stumbled. I closed back on his shoulder. Gammoudi from Tunisia then broke between us.”

Gammoudi told Mills in London that he thought Mills was done – “my friend is off balance, and out of the race, but I must focus on Ron, the world record holder.” Gammoudi told Mills he believed it was the Tunisian’s moment to strike, when he elbowed his way through Clarke and Mills.

Mills said that coming around the final bend, in his low blood-sugar state, he could hear nothing but the throbbing of his heart, and feel nothing but a tingling sensation along his forearm, his vision coming and going, but someone pushing himself to give it “one more try.”

A couple of months before the Olympics, Mills is training in the United States, and he notes in his diary sometime in August that “I’m in great shape, must believe, believe I can run with the best in the world now, and I can beat them at Tokyo.” Mills believed that he could win it if he could imagine it. “The subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between reality or imagination,” Mills has said. “You focus for four years, dozens of times a day, visualizing, re-living the moment the way you want it to be. And then you win. And for one fleeting moment, you know you’re the best in the world.”

So there is Mills, in third, with thirty yards to go, thinking, “One more try, one more try.” And then “I can win, I can win, I can win.” And finally, “I won, I won, I won, I won.” And yet Mills is still in third place with 80 yards to go. Sprinting outside in the middle lanes, using precious energy to swing outside but also taking advantage of firmer ground on the rain-soaked cinder tracks, Mills lifts his legs and pumps his arms in an amazing sprint, the incredible finish described in gleeful shrieks by the American announcers: “Look at Mills! Look at Mills! Coming on! Mills is coming on! Oooh hoo hoo! What a tremendous accomplishment! Bill Mills wins the 10,000 meters in a tremendous upset!”

Mills crosses the finish line as the first and only American to win the 10,000 meter race at the Olympics. A Japanese official comes up to him and says, “Who are you?” Mills is struck with fear, thinking he had not run enough laps to complete the race. Reassured that he had indeed won, his friend from Tunisia came up to congratulate Mills.

Gammoudi smiled, and said to his friend, “too much speed.”