Sportswriters still describe the 10,000-meter run at Tokyo in 1964 as one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history. Dramatically overtaking the two front-runners in the final yards, Billy Mills, a 26-year-old Marine lieutenant who grew up on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, set an Olympic record of 28 min. 24.04 sec. The only American ever to win the event, Mills was more than a long shot—he was a complete unknown. After the race, reporters asked Australia’s Ron Clarke, the favorite who finished third, if he had been worried about Mills. “Worried about him?” Clarke snapped. “I never heard of him.”
Mills’s feat inspired a 1983 movie, Running Brave, which Billy cowrote with wife Pat and which starred Robby Benson. “I was running from rejection, from being orphaned,” reflects Mills, now 58 and living in a suburb of Sacramento. His mother, who was one-quarter Lakota, died when he was 7; his father, three-quarters Lakota, died five years later. “The Indians called me mixed blood,” says Mills. “The white world called me Indian. I was running in search of my identity. I was running to find Billy.” After Mills’s Olympic victory, the tribe gave him warrior status and a Lakota name, Makoce Teh’la (which means “loves his country” or “respects the earth”).
In 1965, Mills set a world record in the 6-mile run and continued competing for about a year while finishing his stint in the Marines. Although he wasn’t sent to Vietnam, Mills was deeply affected by the many combat deaths of men in his unit. He finally quit running, explaining, “I felt I could not participate in a sport when people were being killed in Vietnam.”
After a tour as an official of the Department of the Interior, Mills returned to a career as a successful life insurance salesman and became a motivational speaker. He and Pat, 55, who have been married 34 years, raised three daughters: Christy, 32, an employee of an auto insurance firm; Lisa, 28, who works with her parents; and Billie JoAnne, 25, a grad student at Sacramento State. In 1994, Mills retired from the insurance business so he could devote all his time to speaking to Indian youths and raising money for such charities as Christian Relief Services. “I’ve designed my life,” he says, “so that I can continue to give.”