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Billy Mills' Road to Tokyo

As the clock began ticking down on the months leading to the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, Billy ...

In July 2019, as the clock began ticking down on the 12 months leading to the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, Billy Mills decided to revisit his own Road to Tokyo.

The last time the Olympics were contested in Japan’s capital city, in 1964, Mills, d’62, became the first American to win the 10,000-meters, surging past race favorites in a dramatic finish that furnished one of the most enduring moments of those games. Fifty-six years later, it remains one of the greatest track-and-field upsets in Olympics history—and Mills is still the only American to win the 10,000.

Drawing on training journals and memories of the year leading to his gold-medal finish, Mills and his wife, Patricia Harris Mills,’62, are recounting his journey in a series of monthly chronicles published on the website of Running Strong for American Indian Youth, the nonprofit organization that Mills, a member of the Lakota tribe, founded in 1986 to help American Indian people meet their immediate needs while also starting and supporting programs that create opportunities for self-sufficiency and self-esteem.

In a recent interview with Kansas Alumni, Mills said the 1964 Olympics marked the culmination of a long-held dream—nurtured by his father when Mills was a child—“to heal a broken soul.”

Growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota surrounded by poverty, Mills lost his mother when he was 8. Find a dream, said his father, who died four years later, “and someday you’ll have wings of an eagle.”

The competition also heralded a new start. “The journey to Tokyo was kind of the beginning of Patricia and I’s life as a married couple, and it was also the beginning of forming what we would end up doing the rest of our lives.”

With the 2020 games now postponed to July 2021, Mills will extend the series, meant to form the basis of a memoir. “For me it has been very emotional,” he says of revisiting that year, “because I kept a lot of the challenges I had from Pat at the time, just so she wouldn’t worry.” The installment featured here, “My Dream Is Our Dream,” details the young Marine lieutenant’s struggle with self-doubt, caused in part by the physical battle with low blood sugar and borderline Type 2 diabetes that sometimes hindered his performance in races. The decision he made this summer day in 1964, Mills says now, “That was the turning point. I made the commitment.”

—Steven Hill

Opening ceremonies of the 1964 Olympic Games featured torch-bearer Yoshinori Sakai, who was born Aug. 6, 1945, the day the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Road to Tokyo: My dream is now our dream

by Billy Mills

Dear Reader,

You know by now the 2020 Olympic Games scheduled for Tokyo, Japan, this summer have been postponed over the growing concerns of the global pandemic. They have been rescheduled with opening ceremonies on July 23, 2021, and closing ceremonies on August 8, 2021. The Paralympics will be held August 24 through September 5, 2021. The last time the summer Olympic Games were held in Tokyo was October 4-21, 1964. In 1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan, Roy Tomizawa portrays how the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo symbolized Japan’s miraculous rise from the ashes. The youth of Japan in 1964 had their own theme. It included all youth born in Japan in the hour Hiroshima died (August 6, 1945, when the first atomic bomb fell on humanity) and all youth born since. Their theme was “The World As One.” The Olympics held in Tokyo in 2021 will play a major part in bringing the nations of the world together, seeing “The World As One.” My personal theme of the Olympic Games is global unity through the dignity, character and beauty of global diversity… Seeing the World as One. But more importantly, it is the future of humankind. We are all related.

—Billy Mills

It’s a cool Monday morning, July 13, 1964. I am at the local bank in Fallbrook, California. Fallbrook borders the eastern boundary of Camp Pendleton.  

The land that comprises Fallbrook and Camp Pendleton used to be the sacred lands of the Luiseno and Pachanga tribal nations. Perhaps the energy I often feel during my long runs is the energy of their ancestors. 

The banker, a very cordial man in his late 40s, is completing the loan process for $800.

Getting a loan for Patricia’s expenses to the Olympics has me ecstatic and frightened at the same time. Ecstatic because the Olympics have been our dream since we first met. Frightened because my experiences of going low blood sugar is a dangerous health issue I face daily. Going low creates depression, doubt, confusion, anger and yes, a lot of fear! After going low today during my morning workout, my thoughts are, “Is it wise to actually get this loan today, before I am even on the U.S. Olympic team?” 

He hands me the check, we shake hands, I thank him, and he says “Good luck, Lieutenant.” 

As Patricia and I begin to relax for the evening, I show her the check. She looks at me with such exuberance and says, “It’s really going to happen! You always said we will both go to the Olympics.” It’s incredible that we both feel the same way: We have to be together in Tokyo for your 10,000-meter race! 

We hug as she whispers, “Billy, this is so right. Also, we’re running out of time to secure the lodging arrangements we want.” 

I nod in agreement as my thoughts caution me, “What happens the next time I experience going low blood sugar?” 

The night is extremely restless for me, fighting fear and doubt inside while trying to nurture belief and confidence in our dream. 

As the early morning sun rays begin to reflect their images of nature, they also reflect a more accurate image of my lack of confidence. Perhaps it is premature getting this loan before I make the Olympic team. 

It’s 9 a.m. Tuesday morning, July 14. I am back at the bank in Fallbrook. The banker is surprised having the check returned to him. My comments are simply, “It was premature to make the loan and we may not need it.”  

Arriving home is challenging. Is there a proper way to inform Patricia I took the check back to the bank without consulting her? She greets me with an appreciative smile and a kiss.

Excitedly, Patricia tells me she and Mary Lou made a toast celebrating their trip to the Tokyo Olympics. Patricia was still very much in a celebratory mood. 

Explaining my actions is embarrassing and heartbreaking. Patricia is devastated. Seeing disappointment in her eyes is a pain I never want to feel again. 

She understands my fear of being hypoglycemic and borderline Type 2 diabetic. She seems to understand the depression, doubt and confusion it creates. She even agrees with my concerns of having to borrow the money for her to attend the Olympics. 

We agree to think about what we have discussed and then tomorrow morning address any questions we have. Patricia says she probably would not have any more questions, and compassionately adds that she’s comfortable with me making the final decision. However, her eyes totally convey another story in the form of two penetrating questions—and a powerfully unspoken message. 

One. Billy, am I not going to the Olympics?  

Two. Aren’t we a team? 

Three. You need me there to win. 

It’s 6 a.m. July 15 as I start on a 20-mile run. There is something magical about running early in the morning. As my footprints are being laid upon the earth I feel a gentleness. Looking around and observing the beauty of nature is a sense of sacredness. 

That’s the frame of mind I am in at the moment. It’s a perfect time to address my thoughts. I don’t know if I am looking for answers or just a better understanding of why the fear of going low blood sugar again is so dominating. My thoughts begin to flow. It’s like having a verbal conversation with myself. 

During my races, will it always be a mystery to me if I am going to go hypoglycemic? The recommended diets and time to eat before races don’t seem to help or prevent going low. 

I am embarrassed and angered when coaches, spectators, trainers and, yes, doctors say my health issues are just psychological because of my heritage. Finally, I find the strength to ask myself what Patricia thinks when I drop out of a race. I don’t want to embarrass her if I go low at the Olympic Games. 

And what happens if I don’t go low in Tokyo and find myself in a position to win? Do I need Patricia with me at that moment? My thoughts flow like a gentle, hypnotic breeze. 

It’s not my journey; it’s our journey. It’s not my destiny “win or lose;” it’s our destiny. I feel like my body, mind and soul are drawing physical, mental and spiritual strength from each footprint being laid upon mother earth. 

It becomes clear once again how my Olympic quest was born. I needed a dream to heal a broken soul. The Olympics became the catalyst to heal and the virtues and values of my culture, traditions, and spirituality became the pillars of my journey. The Olympics are the ideal catalyst for me to pursue my dream. My dream is now our dream and it’s the journey, not the destination, that empowers us. 

It’s now 9:45 a.m. July 15, and I am back at the bank in Fallbrook. The banker doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Instead, he says, “How can I help you, Lieutenant?” 

I say, “How about a loan for $800?” He looks amused and responds, “For your wife to go to Tokyo because you plan on making the Olympic team, correct?” My response is yes, in two events. 

Appearing very sympathetic, he comments, “We can’t loan you $800 on an assumption.” 

I tell him I can’t go home without $800 and my assumption. 

He writes a new check and says, “Don’t disappoint her, Marine!” 

We celebrate Patricia’s going to the Olympic Games with dinner at the officers’ club. She tells me Mary Lou is excited to have her Olympic roommate back. We both laugh. 

As dinner comes to a close, Patricia quietly says vulnerability is a strength, not a weakness. I smile and think, “Adapt and overcome.”

It is July 20. Patricia and I are on our way to Culver City, California. Tomorrow, the 21st, is the U.S. Olympic Team marathon qualifying race. My goal is to make the U.S. Olympic Team in the marathon tomorrow and the 10,000 meters in September. 

I glance at Patricia and admire her beauty. Feeling a bit more mature, and with my newfound peace of mind, I say, “I am back in the dream!” 

See you next month! 


Copyright © 2020 Billy Mills. All rights reserved.

Read the entire Road To Tokyo series at