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Sports Heroes Who Served: Native American Marine Took Olympic Gold in 1964

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Sports Heroes Who Served is a series that highlights the accomplishments of athletes who served in the U.S. military.

Tamakoce Te'Hila, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, is better known as Billy Mills, an Olympic great.

His Indian name means "loves his country," and it also means "respects the earth." Mills lived up to his name because after graduating from the University of Kansas, he was commissioned in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1962.

A runner crosses the finish line ahead of everyone else.
Gold Medal
Billy Mills crosses the finish line, taking gold at the 10,000-meter race during the Olympics in Tokyo, Oct. 14, 1964.
Photo By: Marine Corps
VIRIN: 641014-O-ZZ999-001

A gifted athlete in both boxing and running, Mills decided to focus entirely on running. It turned out to be a good decision because, while still in the Marine Corps, he qualified for the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo on the U.S. Track and Field Team.

As a largely unknown runner, Mills qualified for the 10,000-meter race, as well as the marathon. Several other runners were favored to win the 10,000-meter race.

Mills' winning time of 28:24.4 was about 50 seconds faster than he'd ever run that distance before, and it set a new Olympic record. No other American has taken the gold in the 10,000 before or since. Mills placed 14th in the marathon: 2:22:55.4.

A black and white photo of three men racing on a track.
Billy Mills
Billy Mills (No. 722) runs the 10,000-meter race during the Olympics in Tokyo, Oct. 14, 1964.
Photo By: Marine Corps
VIRIN: 641014-O-ZZ999-002

During the 10,000, Mills told his wife, Patricia, that he thought,"I’m going to win, but I may not get to the finish line first."

It was because there were two races, he told her. "The first was to heal the broken soul. And, in the process, I won an Olympic gold medal.”

What Mills meant by broken soul was the racism he'd experienced in life and also being orphaned at the age of 12.

There was still a lot of pep left in Mills after the Olympics. He beat his own Olympic run time the following year, setting a U.S. record in the 10,000 at 28:17.6.

A man speaks into a microphone.
Native American Heritage Luncheon
Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills, a Native American and the only American ever to win the 10,000-meter Olympic race, speaks to airmen at the Recce Point Club on Beale Air Force Base, Calif., Nov 29, 2011.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Jeremy McGuffin
VIRIN: 111122-F-YZ987-044

Mills and Gerry Lindgren broke the world record for the six-mile run, finishing in a tie at the Amateur Athletic Union National Championship of 1965 with a time of 27:11.6.

Now 82, Mills is the co-founder with Eugene Krizek of the nonprofit Running Strong for American Indian Youth. The mission of Running Strong is to help Native Americans fulfill their basic needs – food, water, and shelter – while also helping their communities gain self-sufficiency and self-esteem. He now acts as a spokesperson for the organization and travels the country hoping to empower Native American young people and encourage them to follow their dreams.

A man in business attire with a lei around his neck speaks into a microphone.
Billy Mays Remarks
Billy Mills speaks to service members at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, Nov. 23, 2010.
Photo By: Marine Corps
VIRIN: 101123-O-ZZ999-002

President Barack Obama presented Mills with the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2012 for his work with Running Strong. However, Mills said he feels the greatest acknowledgement he received was being honored at the Anti-Defamation League’s Concert Against Hate in 2014.

On occasion, Mills finds time to speak to service members. On Nov. 23, 2010, he visited them at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.

"The U.S. Army, the Marines, the Air Force, all of our military personnel, you defend the dreams, the character, the duty, not just of America, but the world," he told them. "I am always eternally grateful."


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Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 200706-D-ZZ999-903

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