More than 50 years later, Billy Mills’ victory in the 10,000-meter run at the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games remains one of the greatest upsets and greatest motivational stories in Olympic history.
Mills is the only American – the only man from the Western Hemisphere – to have won this Olympic race.
A member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, Mills grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in remote southwest South Dakota. However, his mother died when Mills was 8 and his father passed away four years later. An orphan, Mills attended Haskell Institute, a boarding school for Native Americans in Lawrence, Kansas. There, Mills became a top runner, eventually earning a scholarship to the University of Kansas, where he was a three-time All-American in cross-country.
VIDEO ❘ Olympic MomentBilly Mills’ gold medal run at Tokyo 1964 is still considered one of the greatest Olympic upsets of all time.
After graduation, Mills entered the United States Marine Corps and joined the Marines track team. Still, while he qualified for the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games, he had finished second in the U.S. Olympic Trials and his times were nearly one minute slower than race favorite and world record-holder Ron Clarke of Australia. Additionally, a Type 2 diabetic, Mills was concerned about fluctuations in his blood sugar level during the nearly half-hour long race.
Mills, though, stayed with the lead pack, and on the final lap he surged down the stretch to victory, setting an Olympic record with a time nearly 50 seconds faster than his previous personal best.
“An official comes up to me and says, ‘Who are you, who are you?’ ” Mills said.
“A Lakota boy, winning the gold medal from little Pine Ridge — it still gives me goose pimples,” former Oglala tribal chairman Joe American Horse said 50 years later.
Mills later co-founded the nonprofit Running Strong for American Indian Youth. In 2013, he received the Presidential Citizens Medal and the following year was presented the Theodore Roosevelt Award by the NCAA.