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Know Your KU History: Billy Mills

One of the biggest upsets in Olympic history involved former Jayhawk Billy Mills.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

One of the perks of attending a large university with an illustrious list of alumni, is the ability to hear a legend speak.  In the late 1990’s, I had the privilege of attending a rare speaking engagement on campus featuring Olympic star Billy Mills.  At the time, I didn’t know anything about the former KU and Haskell track athlete, and to this day I remember very few details of his passionate speech.  What I do remember is that I walked out of the lecture profoundly impressed by Mills and wondered why I hadn’t heard more about him.  This is a man whose history and story needed to be told, needed to be public knowledge.

The man born as Makata Taka Hela was raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for the Sioux people in South Dakota. He eventually made his way to Haskell in Lawrence and then to Kansas, a track and field powerhouse.

Billy Mills was a distance runner, but prior to coming to Kansas, he toiled away in relative obscurity. That changed when he came to KU, and his efforts in the 5000-meter and 10,000-meter races helped KU to back-to-back national championships in track and field in 1959 and 1960. During his time at KU, he was named an All-American in cross-country three times and took the Big Eight championship in that event in 1960. Still, on the national and international stage, Billy Mills was a relative unknown.

Mills qualified for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo in the 10,000-meter race but was a heavy underdog to even place in the medals. Up to the final race in Japan, Mills had never eclipsed the 29-minute mark in the event and all the rivals for medals had finished in somewhere around the 28:30 mark at some point in their careers. It looked like Mills would be the feel-good story of a poor man who grew up on a reservation who qualified for the final heat in a distance race at the Olympics, but those that knew Billy (and those that heard him speak from the heart several years later) knew that he’d fight until the end and wouldn’t settle for "feel-good story" status.

Mills ran the race of his life that day, but it still didn’t look like it would be enough. Ron Clarke of Australia was the man to beat and led for most of the race. But Mills and another contender were right there with Clark as they made the turn into the final lap in Tokyo. He sprinted the final one hundred meters, passing Clark along the way. Mills finished the race in 28 minutes and 24 seconds, a new personal best, which also happened to be a new Olympic record. (Watch the video here. It’s amazing.)

It’s an incredible tale of an underdog considering that Mills wasn’t even the American favored to do the most damage in the event. He finished second in the US Olympic trials and was considered a nice piece of the Olympic team puzzle that took home 11 gold medals, five silver medals, and three bronze medals. His victory marked the first time an American had ever won the 10,000-meter event. He is still the only American to have done so. In fact, he is the only male runner from the western hemisphere who has ever taken gold in that event. Impressive.

But his skills on the track aren’t even the most remarkable aspect of Billy Mills. He joined the US Marines and served his country. He suffers from Type-2 diabetes and had to monitor it throughout his career. In 1986, he founded Running Strong, an organization that helps Native American youth meet their goals. He is their official spokesman, and was awarded the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal by Barack Obama for his work through the organization. In 2014, he received the Theodore Roosevelt Award, a prize the NCAA considers its highest honor and "for whom competitive athletics in college and attention to physical well-being thereafter have been important factors in a distinguished career of national significance and achievement."

Again, I wish I remembered more of what Mills said at that event I attended while at KU, but after researching this article, I came across a quote that I think best encapsulates the spirit of Billy Mills:

"What I took from the Olympic Games was not winning an Olympic gold medal but an understanding of global unity through dignity of character and pride of global diversity. And global unity through global diversity is also the future of mankind."

It’s no wonder I had a feeling of awe after hearing him speak. This is truly a great man.