Native American wins Olympics gold with wings of an eagle

Billy Mills Crossing Finish Line at Tokyo Olympics in 1964

The U.S. Marine Corps provides this photo of 1st Lt. William “Billy” Mills winning the 10,000-meter gold medal at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. He is still the only American to win gold in this Olympic event.

My son David stopped by our farmhouse. Running two companies and a speaking career, with a New York Times Best Seller and a young family, my older son has zero spare time. But he was in the mood to talk. I had him to myself for a glorious hour-plus.

My husband Burton was out of town, and I’d been home nursing a cold all week. Still, I drove to Cross Fish in Charlevoix to pick up salmon. I hoped to lure my pescatarian son back for dinner.  I tried his cell, twice. No answer. (What’s with that generation?) Texted—and finally he was in.

This preamble is leading to a great Godsign, because I happened to be in the car at the right moment to hear an interview on NPR with former Olympic athlete Billy Mills. Here’s the story he told to Terry Gross…

Born in 1938, this young Native American lost his mother as a young boy.  His father said, “Your wings are broken now, son.  But you can get past your sadness. Think of your future, Have hope.  Have a dream.  Someday your wings will heal and you may have the wings of an eagle.”

Mills grew up in poverty, became a runner, got a scholarship to the University of Kansas. Despite winning many awards, he experienced considerable racism. He was excluded from college team pictures for looking “different.”

As a young man, he despaired of ever fitting in.  Sitting in a motel, he thought about suicide.  His father’s voice came to him: “Don’t.”

He remembered his father’s words about holding onto a dream. He got up from the chair, found a pad of paper and wrote: “10,000 meters.”

Fast forward to Tokyo, 1964. A first lieutenant in the Marines, Billy qualified for the 10,000-meter race. He ran, unknown, against several world-record holders. An Australian and a Tunisian battled for the lead, Billy behind. In his 25th and final lap, Billy spotted an eagle on the vest of another runner. Remembering his father’s words, he sprinted to the finish.

After the race, a Japanese reporter came up to him: “Who are you?”

Billy asked, “Did I miss a lap?”

The reporter kept saying, “New Olympic champion.”

Later, Billy looked for the racer with the eagle on his singlet . “I wanted to thank him,” he said. “I found him. There was no eagle.”

Until then, no American had ever won the 10,000 meter in an Olympics. Billy Mills’ victory is often considered the greatest upset in Olympic track and field history.

(Are there symbols or images that spur you on?  Please share them.). 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email