This month’s “C” word is COMMITMENT, which, in the “C” You In The Major Leagues lexicon means that a person has a strong work ethic; is not easily distracted; prepares accordingly; and prioritizes. Fifty-three years ago Saturday, on Oct. 14, 1964, former University of Kansas runner, Billy Mills, saw a dream come true. But it was a dream fulfilled only by his COMMITMENT.
The young man sat at the open hotel window, glaring down at the street below. His knees were on the window ledge, with his feet on a chair behind him.
The years of hatred and anger, both toward him and from him, had built up. As half-Lakota Indian and half-white, he didn’t feel that he belonged in society. Others didn’t think he did, either. American Indians mocked him for not being full-blooded; white people ridiculed him. Being orphaned at the age of 12 certainly didn’t help his understanding of life.
Now, in 1961, for the third year in a row, on photo day for the All-American track team of which he was a part, representing the University of Kansas, he was asked to step aside and not be included in the photo. Again, he says, he was being told that he didn’t belong.
He had had enough. He couldn’t take it anymore. He went to his hotel room, ready to end it all. Jumping would be the easy way out.
Suddenly, though, Billy Mills felt a voice. It was his late father from the “spirit world,” telling him suicide was not the way.
“The reason I wanted to commit suicide was not KU or the state of Kansas; it was America. I experienced hatred all over the country,” said Mills, who admits he kept that story bottled up for decades.
Three years after that fateful day, Mills heard his father’s voice again during the final lap of his gold-medal run in the 10,000 meters at the 1964 Games in Tokyo, in one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history.
“My dad used to say how you have to find the passion within you and follow it,” Mills said of his father, who died when Billy was 12, five years after Billy’s mother passed away. “I learned how to find that passion in some harsh ways. I had to deal with anger within me, along with hatred and jealousy. Taking those emotions and realizing how they would destroy me, I had to look deeper below them. That’s where the dreams lie.
“The dream for me at that time became a gold medal.”
Mills’ father’s spirit, as well as the spirits of great American Indian elders, has lived with Mills throughout his life. He started learning about it as a high school student at Haskell Indian Institution when it was a boarding school. He developed a greater understanding while at Kansas. He used it on his way to becoming a Marine lieutenant. He carried it with him to the podium in Tokyo.
In the eyes of most Americans, Mills’ greatest accomplishment remains the gold medal. Mills worked passionately toward that goal. After marrying Pat, his college sweetheart, he joined the Marine Corps, a place where he felt he might find a home. He kept a journal of his goals, achievements and failures. And, from the back of his mind, he remained focused on his dream of winning an Olympic gold medal.
“Graduating from Kansas and becoming commissioned by the Marine Corps were dreams, but the main priority was fulfilling the ultimate dream of winning the gold medal,” said Mills, who went on to become a motivational speaker (or, as he calls it, a “self-empowerment” speaker). “When I got to know myself, I started understanding my dad’s words from so many years before.”
As an obscure athlete to fans away from the Midwest, Mills, who also qualified for the marathon at the Tokyo Games, shocked the world in the 10,000.
During the final lap of the 6.2-mile race, Mills trailed Tunisia’s Mohamed Gammoudi and world-record holder Ron Clarke, from Australia, and a German runner. Mills was losing stamina and couldn’t pass the German runner. Suddenly, the German gave Mills an open lane and he took it. Mills once again heard his father’s voice.
“My dad used to tell me that if I followed his teachings, someday I would have the wings of an eagle,” Mills said. “When the German runner opened the lane, it was so empowering for me. I kept saying to myself, ‘one more try, one more try, one more try.’
“As I passed the German, I glanced over and on the middle of his singlet was an eagle. For me, it was spiritual, the wings of an eagle as my dad taught me.”
In the final few meters, Mills passed Clarke and Gammoudi and won with a then-Olympic record time of 28:24.4, just :00.4 ahead of Gammoudi and nearly 50 seconds faster than his previous best mark.
“After the race, I realized my win was God-given,” Mills said. “I found the German runner and there was no eagle on his singlet. However, there was one on their warm-ups. So, when I passed him during the race, I either saw the eagle in my mind, knowing it was a German runner, or I saw it through the magic of my dad and his secret of how dreams come true. That’s when I knew the win was God-given, which was very humbling.”
Mills was the only American man to win the 10,000 meters at the Olympics until Galen Rupp did so in 2012. That gold has since helped Mills touch thousands of lives but, he says, it hasn’t shaped him as a person.
“What shaped me are the virtues and values I’ve tried to implement in my life,” he said. “I have made many, many mistakes in my life, but I’ve learned that the truth frees you. That is what has changed my life. The gold medal has not changed my life.”
After retiring from a successful career in insurance, Mills became a distinguished speaker, mainly using messages of unity through diversity and sport to teach life values, to various charity organizations. In 2012, President Obama awarded Mills with the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second-highest civilian award in the United States.
It’s hard to fathom that just a few years before adding his name to the record books, Mills was on the verge of killing himself. Instead, this real-life George Bailey has touched countless lives since winning the gold medal.
“That moment in Tokyo remains constant in my mind,” Mills said. “But not so much for winning a gold medal, as the decision to take a small portion of everyday of my life and talk about what I took from sport. Sport to teach life values is sacred. I took the true sense of global unity through the dignity, the character and the beauty of global diversity, which is not only the theme of the Olympics to me, but also of the future of humankind.”