This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on July 15, 2004.
By Ed Odeven
Forty years later, Mills’ message still strong
Most Olympians fade from our collective memories just a few years after they captivate us with their extraordinary feats. But 40 years after winning an Olympic gold medal, Billy Mills is still a name people cannot forget.
The only individual from the Americas — North, South or Central — to win a 10,000-meter race at the Olympics, Billy Mills still matters.
That’s right. Mills is still a well-known figure. And it’s not just because he won a gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Games.
Mills is a tireless ambassador for good causes. He travels the nation for Running Strong for American Indian Youth and visits country after country (he’s been to 87 nations) delivering positive messages.
Many individuals can go near and far to talk about the benefits of hard work, giving countless pep talks or speeches with little variation. But what keeps Mills in the spotlight is the power and the conviction that he uses to make his speeches. Mills’ words come from the deepest part of his soul.
This was evident the moment he stepped in front of the microphone and delivered the keynote speech at the opening ceremonies of the third annual Lori Piestewa National Native American Games Thursday night at Sinagua High School.
Positive thinking — today, tomorrow and in the future — is the message Mills brings.
And everyone ought to have a dream, he said, and pursue that dream regardless of the personal or societal problems they may encounter.
“The secret,” he said, “is to find that passion, find that dream. To find the dream, you’ve got to look beyond the anger, the hurt, and maybe the hate, maybe racism, maybe self-pity, because all of those emotions destroy.
“You look deeper, and way down deeper is where the dreams lie. It’s the dream and the pursuit of the dream that heals you.”
Mills received a standing ovation and a thunderous round of applause after his speech. Smiles lit up the SHS gymnasium. People realized they had just heard a great man speak.
“Billy’s always been a role model for our kids,” said Duane Waukau, who was sporting a Green Bay Packers ballcap. “He brings a positive message. … He walks the talk, and I think our kids need to see more of that.
“We need to take advantage of his words and his wisdom,” added the 50-year-old Waukau, the parks and recreation director of the Menominee Tribe in Kescena, Wis.
Winning an Olympic gold medal was a lifelong dream for Mills. As a child, he was fascinated by the stories of Greek mythology he read. He told the crowd he remembered reading a book when he was 9 years old that said this:
“Olympians are chosen by the gods.”
At the time, those words inspired Mills. He said he wanted to be an Olympian because he wanted to be a god. Why? He thought then that would mean he would be close to his mother, who had passed away when was 9.
Years later, after his father had died, Mills attended the University of Kansas. By that time, he had become a three-time All-American runner. He was a distinguished athlete. Even so, anger, hate and self-pity — indeed powerful emotions — controlled his mind. He said he was so depressed one day that he nearly jumped out of the window from the sixth floor of a building.
But then, his late father’s words — “Son, you have broken wings” — came to him and inspired him to do great things.
Mills immediately grabbed a piece of paper and jotted down this message:
“Gold medal, 10,000 runner; believe, believe, believe!”
Mills never stopped believing in himself.
Even when others doubted him, he still believed he’d be an Olympic champion.
Heck, the sportscaster who was calling the live action from Tokyo said “everyone thought he was a pace-setter.” With one lap to go in the historic 10,000-meter race, Mills, the leader, was pushed and then stumbled and fell into third place. But he never gave up, never lost sight of the message he’d uttered to himself so many times. So he repeated it to himself on the key, final stretch — “I can win. I can win. I can win.”
He did, setting a world record in the event.
“We are blessed with the presence of a great Olympian,” Mayor Joe Donaldson proclaimed, just moments before Mills spoke.
Yes, indeed. He maintains a full slate of activities each week, including speaking to business and civic groups as well as youth groups on Indian reservations.
This being an Olympic year, Mills’ list of activities keeps increasing.
In August, Mills is taking two weeks off from his busy schedule to attend the 2004 Athens Games, his 11th Olympiad, 10th as a spectator.
Last month, he carried the Olympic torch in St. Louis, joining Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the great heptathlete, for the festivities. It was the fifth time he’s carried the Olympic torch. He also had the honor of carrying it in 2002 in Monument Valley before the Salt Lake City Winter Games.
Two days ago, Mills hosted a party at his Sacramento, Calif., home. There were more than 200 people there, with about 50 former Olympians in attendance, including Juan Carlos, Bob Mathias and Bob Beamon.
Mills, who trained in Flagstaff in 1968 with four-time Olympian George Young, was asked what it was like to be in the Olympic village.
“… That’s where you get the true meaning of the Olympic Games,” Mills said, adding he met and interacted with athletes from more than 100 countries in ’64 in Tokyo. “That’s where the birth of global unity through the dignity, through the character, through the beauty of global diversity emerged for me.”
Try forgetting that message.