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Billy Mills ran behind the garbage truck as it wound through the Indian reservation in South Dakota. It was summer break of his sophomore year in college, and he had come back to his Native American homeland to earn some money. As he was emptying a trash can into the back of the truck, another crew member asked him, “Why aren’t you riding in the cab with us? Why do you run behind the truck? Is it because we are full blood and you’re mixed blood?”
Mills has always been stuck between worlds. Half white and half Native American, he never felt accepted by either heritage. But during that summer collecting garbage, identity did not relegate him behind the truck. “No,” he told his co-worker. “It’s because I’m training for the Olympic games, and on trash day I can get an extra 15 miles of running.”
A few years later, in 1964, Mills was on the Olympic track in Tokyo, running one of the most epic 10,000m races in history. Trailing behind the two favoured winners for most of the run, Mills had a sudden burst of speed in the last 30 yards. He saw an eagle on the jersey of the German runner he passed, which reminded him of a conversation he had with his father when he was a boy. “I heard my dad’s voice, ‘someday you’ll have the wings of an eagle.’ I thought, ‘I can win, I can win, I can win.’”
Mills sprinted past the other two runners, causing an eruption in the announcer’s booth, and broke the tape at the finish line. “An official comes up to me and says, ‘Who are you, who are you?’”
It is still considered one of the biggest upsets of the Olympics. Mills is now 74, his slender runner’s build slightly filled out, his green eyes wavering between sadness and pride. For him, the gold medal was a symbol of so much more than athletic accomplishment. Just a few years earlier, he stood at the window of his hotel room after a collegiate competition. “I was going to jump,” he says. When posing with the other winners for a photo, the photographer asked him, “the one with the darkest skin,” to step out of the photo. “Society was breaking me,” Mills says. “The racism. I couldn’t quite understand.”
Mills’s mother died when he was eight, his father died when he was 12. Running, for him, “replaced the loneliness in me of being orphaned. It opened my senses. I could look off in the field, running, and see the flowers. It was like sacredness.” After the Olympics, he returned to visit the reservation. The same man who he had collected trash with was now an elder of his tribe. They made Mills a warrior, and gave him an eagle feather headdress and an official Lakota name. “They were recognising me, accepting my full identity,” he says. “That was the greatest honour bestowed upon me.”
Mills refers to his Olympic win as “a gift”, one that inspires him to give back to his community and to the next generation of young indigenous children. Mills and his wife, Pat, built an enterprise around his name and triumph. He authorised the making of a movie about his life, Running Brave, and a book, Lessons of a Lakota. He goes on speaking tours, and sponsors events.
The promotions have earned him a lovely home outside Sacramento, California, and a white Mercedes with the licence plate “10000KGold” in the driveway. They have also raised money for various non-profit groups, from Indian youth programmes to dialysis clinics to organic gardening projects.
“The tribe, when they made me a warrior, they told me, ‘now you have to give,’” he says. “You have to continually give back to the people who empowered you, the people who helped you. It was Native American virtues and values that helped me.”