Billy Mills Runs Ahead

Seventy-five thousand people are screaming. But all Billy Mills hears is his own heart thumping.

It is a heart that had been born on the Oglala Sioux reservation of Pine Ridge, South Dakota. That had been orphaned by the age of 12. That had found calm in distance running when people at the University of Kansas called him ‘Chief,’ kept him out of their photographs and their fraternities.

Now, late in the day on October 14, 1964, Billy Mills and his heart are in Tokyo. It is rainy. And he is a complete unknown. There are 37 other runners in the 10,000 meter race. A 6.2 mile run the US has never won and isn’t expected to win anytime soon.

Mr. Mills has been defeated in races before. But defeat’s not failure, he believes. “Failure is doing nothing.”

So, here we are in Tokyo, over 9,000 meters into it. And Mr. Mills isn’t leading the pack. But he’s up there, with Ron Clarke, the world-record holder from Australia who thinks the race is his, and Mohammed Gammoudi from Tunisia, who beat Mr. Mills in a race last year.

Weeks earlier, Mr. Mills wrote in a notebook: “Believe I can run with the best in the world.” He’d run 45,000 miles over 15 years. He’d trained and he’d visualized and he’d believed.

On the track, with meters to go, Mr. Mills gets elbowed by Mr. Clarke, loses his stride. Seventy-five thousand people – which is 73,000 more than Pine Ridge, South Dakota – in the stands are roaring and screaming into the wet Tokyo air.

Mr. Gammoudi pulls out ahead. Mr. Mills regains his stride. It’s the final lap. He’s in third, almost out of the TV frame. And then he surges and he pounds and his heart thumps past Mr. Clarke and past Mr. Gammoudi.

And the announcer, who would be fired by NBC for his enthusiasm but seems to have no regrets, is screaming, “Look at Mills! Look at Mills!”

And if you look at Mr. Mills then, what you won’t know is that his heart – which knew alienation and knew defeat, but did not, would not know failure – is the only thing he hears. And in huge, unbelievable strides, he crosses the finish line first.

And if you look at Billy Mills then, what you will know is that he does not run with the best in the world. He runs ahead of them.

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