The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)


September 18, 2013

On the heels of death, Olympic Champion Billy Mills gains lessons for life

Mills captured gold in the 1964 Games in Tokyo

Wednesday, September 18, 2013 — For Billy Mills, life has been more of a long-distance race than

a sprint. Mills, 75, is on the edge of celebrating the 50th anniversary of his gold-medal performance in the 10,000 meters during the 1964 Summer Olympics. But it took a while for Mills to enjoy life, for he had many obstacles to overcome prior to that shining moment in Tokyo.

His journey has been captured in many books and in the 1983 film “Running Brave.” He will share his personal tale in a free motivational speech in October at the Stanly County Senior Center.

“My father, when I was a child after my mother died, told me I had broken wings,” Mills said.

Mills said his father instructed him how to one day have “wings of an eagle.”

Yet before he could get those wings, Mills said he found himself broken many times, viewing changes in the country through the early moments of the civil rights movement and experiencing indirect racism as a Native American.

He soon also found himself dealing with the death of his father.

“I was challenged and on the verge of suicide,” Mills said.

At a meet in college he was moments away from jumping from his fourth floor hotel room when he remembered his father telling him, “You need a dream to heal a broken soul.”

Mills said he jumped down into his room and wrote down “gold medal, 10,000-meter run. Believe. Believe. Believe.”

He wanted to compete in the Olympics, he wanted to win a gold medal and he wanted to achieve a world record.

Prior to his Olympic moment Mills found out he had Type 2 diabetes.

During the race, it became more apparent, as his blood sugar level was dropping with two laps to go.

With 90 yards to go, he was five yards behind the leader.

“That’s a lot to make up,” Mills said.

“I’m making one final try as I’m going low blood sugar.

“I glanced out of my eye, and in the center of his singlet, I could see an eagle.”

He remembers thinking that he may never again have this opportunity, telling himself, “I can do it, I can do it.”

As he crossed the finish line, he wondered if he had more lap to go. The official gave him notice that he had finished and was the new Olympic champion.

Mills goes to search out the runner with the eagle shown, however, there is no eagle.

“It was just in my mind,” Mills said.

Mills believes in the theory that each person has their moment or moments, with his coming in 1964.

He won the gold medal in a come-from-behind effort.

This is the message he presents in his motivational talks.

“The message I try to get across in this rapidly changing world we now exist in [is] we still have that incredible opportunity to choreograph our journey,” Mills said.

“It was the journey not the destination that empowered me as an athlete.

“It’s the daily decisions we make in life.”

He talks about how he choreographed his journey from being suicidal to an Olympic medalist and how others can seize opportunities in their lives.

Mills also enjoys the spirit and message brought forth by the Olympics.

“What I took from the Olympics and which is in my life daily, is a true sense of global unity,” he said.

“Unity through diversity is not just the theme of the Olympic games but the future of humankind.”

Athletes put aside political and cultural differences to compete against one another with character and dignity, Mills said.

“The most powerful magic was young people from a variety of countries throughout the world sharing their differences as they attempted to find their (commonalities),” he said.

With the threat of a U.S. strike against Syria’s leader for potential use of chemical weapons against his own people, Mills said there is “no finer platform to present global unity than through the magic of the Olympic games.”

“That’s what I took from Tokyo,” he said.

“It’s kind of gone full circle in my life.”

As he spoke with The Stanly News & Press just days before the International Olympic Committee announced that Tokyo would host the 2020 Olympic Games, Mills was confident that the Japanese city would prevail over the other contenders of Istanbul and Madrid.

“When you look at all the issues of financing, security, the economy of Japan is so huge. The security they could provide is superior to the security Instanbul and Madrid could provide,” Mills said.

“That would allow for the majesty that the power of the Olympic games could provide.

“It just happens to be, with all the factors in the world, it’s Tokyo’s moment.

“In 1964 it was Tokyo’s moment. Tokyo’s moment left a lasting impression on me.

“We’re going back to try and capture that sacred moment.”

Although he has been at 12 Olympic Games — nine summer and three winter — he only competed in one, his gold-medal performance.

“I had beautiful mentors along the way, but once I won I realized that that moment was a gift to me,” Mills said.

“We have to be prepared to take advantage of those times, those few times that are presented to us.”

Mark Lassiter, a dentist in Norwood, is the reason Mills is coming to Stanly County.

After finalizing the purchase of Norwood Dental Clinic this year, Lassiter wanted to bring in someone as a motivational speaker for his staff. He then realized he wanted to open it up to the general public.

“I wanted to get him down here and see if he could have some impact on other people,” Lassiter said.

When Lassiter was in college at Pfeiffer, he saw Mills give a speech that was offered for cultural credit. He said the speech changed his life since he had not experienced a great personal loss at that time. When he did experience a loss, Lassiter thought back to the inspirational words of Mills.

“It just gave me the inspiration that people overcome pretty major adversity to be successful and optimistic and productive,” Lassiter said.

“Overcoming adversity is a good message in my book.”

Mills will speak at the senior center at 1 p.m. Oct. 29. A question-and-answer session will follow the speech, along with an autograph opportunity.

Admission is free; however, a ticket is required, with a limited number available. Tickets may be picked up at the senior center or at Norwood Dental Clinic.

For Mills, the stop in Albemarle is one of his close to 300 days of travel a year. He said he is very active and that he has moved the definition of an elder back to 100.

“I meet so many elders today that have so much wisdom, so, I need more time,” he said.

“I hope I can reach 100 with some wisdom.”

To submit story ideas, contact B.J. Drye at or (704) 982-2121 ext. 25.


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