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Olympian Billy Mills: A long road to Kansas

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, April 18, 2010, at 12:03 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, April 18, 2010, at 1:05 a.m.

LAWRENCE — To Billy Mills' left sits Ashley Sell, a young woman who feels like she owes him everything. Sell is a senior at Kansas. She has received a $1,500 scholarship from Mills the past two years for excelling as a person of Native American descent in KU's school of education.

Mills tries to make light of the small sum he's given Sell.

"It wasn't small to me," Sell says.

To Mills' right sits Michael Johnson, a young man who can't believe he's sitting next to Billy Mills. Johnson is a long-distance runner at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. His coach showed the team the movie about Mills' life, "Running Brave," last season on a bus ride. Johnson already knew of Mills — orchestrator of one of the greatest Olympic upsets in the 10,000-meter run at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics — but he and his teammates were captivated after seeing the movie.

"It's crazy meeting Billy," Johnson says.

Surrounded by strangers who admire him, Mills is comfortable. It is Friday morning at the Oread Hotel in Lawrence, a couple of blocks from where the Kansas Relays are running at Memorial Stadium, and for Mills the day presents a conflicted kind of nostalgia. Mills used to run in the Relays for KU, but the people who knew him then would not recognize him now — with the constant smile, warm and engaging, and the kind soul that is open for the world to see.

At KU, Mills was a frightened boy living in a foreign world.

"When I look back on my career, there is a hole," Mills says. "And that hole is while I was here."

Because Mills went on to win gold, he comes back to Lawrence a conquering hero with a story to tell. For the longest time, Mills didn't want to tell it. And once he was ready, it felt as if most people didn't want to hear it.

At the Oread, everybody is listening. Colorado-Colorado Springs coach Mark Misch set up this meeting through Billy's wife, Pat, who happily handles the many arrangements in Billy's life. Misch kept Friday's gathering a secret from his team because he wanted it to be a surprise.

"Billy's a lot more than a man who ran a great race," Misch says. "That's what makes it significant."

Mike English, another long-distance runner on the Colorado team, asks the question Mills always gets: "What was your game plan going into the Olympics?"

That is Mills' cue.

"Stay with the leaders," Billy says, and the story begins.

*

Billy Mills will spend the whole day moving from one group to the next. Now he's riding shotgun with KU official Mike Harrity, who is escorting him to talk with around 60 KU athletes.

"I watched your YouTube video this morning just to get excited for today," Harrity says.

That video, which shows Mills becoming the only man from the Western Hemisphere to ever win the Olympic 10,000 meters, has been watched by hundreds of thousands of Internet clickers. It is a part of track folklore.

In the years after his magical run, bits and pieces of Mills' background gradually seeped out. He was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and lost both of his parents by the time he was 12. Orphaned at 13, he went to boarding school at Haskell Indian School in Lawrence. He battled through persecution as a Lakota Sioux growing up in the heart of the Civil Rights' movement to miraculously win gold. Simply the basics were enough to inspire.

But now Mills is able to go deeper. He dives right into the story about how he was asked to remove himself from the official after-race photo on three separate occasions when he had made All-America in cross country. After the third time, during his junior year at KU, he went back to his hotel room and contemplated suicide.

"I broke" is how Mills describes what happened to him then and many other times on his journey to Olympic glory. Mills also broke when fraternities at Kansas wouldn't let him join. He remembers frat boys calling him "chief." But Mills wants to make a point to the current KU students.

"It was not the University of Kansas," Mills says. "It was America."

When Mills was at Haskell, Native Americans were only allowed to walk on three streets in town: Main Street (now Massachusetts Street) and the streets to the east and west. When he made the short move to KU, Mills had no idea what to expect.

"I experienced more culture shock coming to KU than any of the 96 different countries I've visited," Mills says. "I was so fragile, so fragile."

The first time Mills had ever been in a white person's home was Thanksgiving of his freshman year, when KU teammate Bob Covey invited Mills to his home in Ames, Iowa. Covey had figured it out that Mills had nowhere else to go.

On the track, things had always been easy for Mills, but even that wasn't going well. Mills, who was known as one of the top high-school milers in the country, was never the best miler on the KU team. He often clashed with KU track coach Bill Easton, who was pounding at Mills with negative reinforcement.

"Billy liked to run because it was fun to run," Covey says, "and Easton was trying to get him to change, to be a killer, to be a person who was much more aggressive in competition."

Mills won often in cross country because of the longer distances, but he couldn't reach his potential in track. He had no confidence. Mills remembers a time when Easton asked him about his goals, and Mills said he wanted to make the Olympic team. Mills says Easton told him that dream was too big.

"Nobody believed in me is what I felt," Mills says. "I felt like I didn't belong."

During his sophomore year, Mills was ready to give up and return to Pine Ridge. He packed a small bag of clothes and headed for the bus station. Mills' coach at Haskell found him and convinced him to keep running, but that didn't mean it would have to be at Kansas.

Mills got on a bus to Wichita State to speak with the coach there about transferring. Mills said the coach told him he wouldn't allow it because Mills' grades were good at KU and he'd be doing Mills a disservice by letting him transfer. So, after all of that, Mills would stay in Lawrence.

The next year, he met Pat, his future wife, and things slowly began to turn. Billy finally had someone that he could talk to about his struggles.

"The first white person I ever trusted, I married her," Mills says.

Still, Mills couldn't get going on the track. He says most people assumed it was low self esteem, which was a common perception about Native Americans at the time.

"Something was wrong," Mills says. "I just could not figure out what it was."

After Billy's KU career was over and he and Pat had married, Billy decided to stop running. But Pat could tell he wasn't the same without it. In protest, she left his track shoes sitting by the front door of their home.

"Every time he went out the door," Pat says, "he had to look at them."

*

The grainy black-and-white video plays on a projection screen at KU's Hadl Auditorium, and Billy Mills can only think about the youth in front of him and the chance he has to inspire. Sometimes, when Mills watches his famous race by himself, he cries. But right now, it is not about him. It's about them.

The final lap has arrived, and Mills is in third place behind favorites Mohamed Gammoudi of Tunisia and Ron Clark of Australia. The video jumps ahead to the final 100 meters, when Mills suddenly bursts past them at a time when he should have no energy left.

"Look at Mills! Look at Mills!" the announcer yells in disbelief. "What a tremendous surprise here!... This unheralded runner from Kansas!"

The other announcer is yelling at a high pitch, deliriously and incoherently. The race will immediately go down as the greatest upset of all time.

"It truly felt like I had wings on my feet," Mills says to the KU athletes.

How did this happen? The answer comes adorned with Mills' mythology. It begins when he is an 8-year-old boy who has lost his mother to cancer. He and his father are fishing, and his father can tell Billy is sad.

"Son, you have broken wings," Billy remembers his father saying. "But I'll share something with you. If you follow some of the things I say, some day you will have wings of an eagle."

Billy's father told him he had to let go of his anger, his hatred, his jealousy and his self-pity.

"You have to look deeper, son," his father continued, "way down deeper where the dreams lie. You have to find the dream. You have to chase it. It's the pursuit of the dream that heals you."

Mills pursued the dream of being an Olympian, let it go and then rediscovered it just in time to train for the Tokyo Games. In 1962, three months after he stopped running in response to his KU struggles, Mills put on those track shoes sitting by the front door. He would join the Marine Corps and become an officer. He'd get in the best shape of his life, aided by a medical discovery: Billy Mills was hypoglycemic and a borderline diabetic. That finally explained why Billy would wilt at the end of races.

Mills learned how to race with his condition and made the Olympic team. He was ranked eighth in the world — a long shot to even medal.

Late in the race, when Mills needed motivation to keep pushing, he saw an eagle emblem on a German runner's uniform. Was an eagle actually there? He wasn't sure afterward. But all that mattered was that he saw it.

"Wings of an eagle," Mills remembers thinking. "I can win! I can win! I can win!"

In the stands in Tokyo that day, watching his former pupil, was Bill Easton. Mills found out Easton was there when he received a telegram after the race.

"Congratulations, son," the telegram read. "I just saw the greatest race of my life."

Mills eventually found Easton and spoke with him.

"I grew to love him," Mills says.

Suddenly, Mills was no longer broken. As time passed and he reflected on his experience, he decided that he had received a gift from a higher power. Mills felt obligated to give. The one thing he had to offer, of course, was a story.

*

Billy Mills can talk about whatever he wants today, and he will be heard. This is his 13th year of traveling more than 300 days of the year, preaching a message of global unity through diversity.

On Friday afternoon in the Memorial Stadium press box, his day coming to a close soon, he is talking to a couple of teenage boys and their parents about sovereignty and taxation without representation, issues that still haunt Native Americans who live on reservations.

Back in 1984, Mills wanted to take these topics head on in "Running Brave," but he was talked out of it. America wasn't ready, he decided.

For much of the time before that, Mills hadn't been ready either. He had settled in Sacramento, Calif., and was selling insurance. He tried to do some public speaking in the insurance field but was told his message was too un-American. Part of the reason he wanted to talk about Native American issues was that he didn't want to talk about the things going on inside of him throughout his life, particularly his thoughts of suicide.

"I couldn't acknowledge it," Mills says. "Later on, when I felt really solid, then I could do it."

Mills eventually found his outlets. In 1990, he combined with now-bestselling novelist Nicholas Sparks on a book called "Wokini," about a lost boy's search for happiness. The book gave Sparks' writing career a kick-start and combined with "Running Brave" to generate more demand for Mills.

Mills' legend, already alive among Native Americans, grew with time worldwide — so much so that Mills' name has been used by Christian Relief Services and Running Strong for American Indian Youth to raise a sum near $650 million for various charities.

Mills says he has often wondered: If he hadn't won the gold, would anyone have heard his story?

"The platform was different," Mills says, "once I won the race."

Mills means something to a lot of people. Just ask Trenton Miller and Trey Horton, freshmen at Topeka Seaman High who arranged a meeting with Mills on Friday afternoon. Miller and Horton did their eighth-grade Kansas History Day project on Mills. They ended up winning first place in the state and traveling to Washington, D.C., for the national event, where they finished 13th out of 87 teams. They spent six months compiling a 10-minute DVD about Mills' life.

So, why Billy Mills?

"We wanted somebody local that we saw as inspiring," Horton says. "So that when people at competitions asked us why we chose this project, we could give a heartfelt answer."

Mills spent an hour and a half telling his story to the boys, even though they already knew it better than anybody.

"I was on the verge of suicide," Mills says, ready to begin again.

This is Billy Mills today, 46 years after a gold medal being hoisted around his neck served to free him.

"It took me years to share with people," Mills tells the boys.

They nod their heads respectfully. Like every person who hears Mills' story, the boys are a part of his transformation.

"There are no bad memories," Mills says. "There are lessons. It's your journey, not the destination, that empowers you."

Check J. Brady McCollough's KU blog at blogs.kansas.com/jayhawk. Reach him at jmccollough@wichitaeagle.com.

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