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Running From The Reservation To Olympic Glory

Billy Mills pulls off a stunning upset by winning the 10,000 meters Olympic race in Tokyo Oct. 14, 1964. Mills set an Olympic record of 28:24:4, and was the only American ever to win the event. (AP Photo)

Billy Mills pulls off a stunning upset by winning the 10,000 meters Olympic race in Tokyo Oct. 14, 1964. Mills set an Olympic record of 28:24:4, and was the only American ever to win the event. (AP)

It was one of the greatest Olympic upsets ever: Billy Mills came from nowhere to win the 10,000 meter race at the 1964 Olympics. And what happened that day on that track in Tokyo was just part of a very spiritual journey this man’s life has been, a journey he’s still traveling, or as he might say, choreographing.

U.S. President Barack Obama presents Running Strong for American Indian Youth founder and Olympian Billy Mills with the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation's second-highest civilian honor, in the White House February 15, 2013 in Washington, DC. "Their selflessness and courage inspire us all to look for opportunities to better serve our communities and our country," Obama said about this year's recipients. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama presents Billy Mills with the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation’s second-highest civilian honor, February 15, 2013. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Mills was born in 1938 and grew up on the impoverished Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. His parents were a mix of white and Native American. He’s a member of the Lakota Nation, but he was sometimes seen as belonging to neither culture. Things only got worse when his mother died when Billy was 8.

“As I mourned my mother, my dad told me I had broken wings,” he told Here & Now’s Robin Young. “He said I’m going to share something with you and if you follow it, someday, someday you may have wings of an eagle. He told me to look beyond the hurt, the hate, the jealousy, self pity. All of those emotions destroy you. He said, look deeper and way down deeper where the dreams lie. You’ve got to find a dream son. It’s the pursuit of dreams that will heal broken souls.”

His father also died, when Billy was just 12. But the message his father had delivered after his mother’s death stayed with Billy. And they saved his life when he was about to commit suicide a few years later.

“I didn’t hear words. I felt movement of energy in my whole body. And it was as if my dad’s voice was forming energy that spoke ‘don’t,’” he said. “And I remember him telling me you need a dream to heal a broken soul. I wrote down my dream, Olympic 10,000-meter run, gold medal. The creator has given me the ability, the rest is up to me.”

He did the rest and won the gold medal. It’s a race you just have to watch to believe.

Since 1964, Billy has used the platform he stepped onto at the Olympics to promote the causes and issues facing Native Americans, especially young Native Americans. He also wants to help all Americans understand Native American history.

Billy Mills started his journey with broken wings. But the spirit instilled in him by his father so many years ago eventually caused him to soar. He’s still up there.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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