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Interviews with news makers and discussion of topics important to Southwest Michigan. Subscribe to the podcast through Apple itunes and Google. Segments of interview are heard in WestSouthwest Brief during Morning Edition and All Things Considered

WSW: From Broken Wings to Olympic Gold

Courtesy of Western Michigan University

Billy Mills says he was innocent and naïve and believed he could win the gold medal in the 10,000 meter run in the 1964 Olympics. But few others thought he had a chance. 

Mills says he wrote in his journal “Gold Medal 10,000 meter run, God has given me the ability, the rest is up to me, believe, believe, believe.” Mills was the second Native American to win an Olympic gold medal. He co-founded the Running Strong Foundation in 1986. Mills says it was his way to give back to the young Native Americans and help them achieve their dreams. Mills will speak at Western Michigan University on Monday. He spoke with WMUK’s Gordon Evans about his Olympic victory and his work since then. 

Credit Courtesy of Western Michigan University
Billy Mills

The origins of his victory, Mills says, go back to his childhood. His mother died when he was eight and his father passed away when Billy was 12. Mills says he was close to suicide when he was in college, feeling like he didn’t belong, and almost being crushed by racism. But he believed in himself and set out to win a gold medal in the Olympics.

Mills says as time went by he realized how important his victory was for other people. One story he tells is being in Cape Town, South Africa. Because he flies so frequently, Mills and his wife Pat decided to wait for a later flight so they could be upgraded for the long flight home. During their wait Mills’ wife decided to get a massage. The masseuse was Tibetan from Northern India and told Pat that she was going to part of an arranged marriage. But the young woman told Mills’ wife that her brother stood up to their father. To make his point he showed the family the 1983 movie Running Brave. It tells the story of Billy Mills’ life and Olympic victory with Robbie Benson playing Mills. Mills says his wife’s massage “went downhill” when she told the woman that she could meet Billy Mills. He says the young woman gave him a hug and said “you’re like an uncle to me.” 

Interview with Billy Mills - web version

The Running Strong Foundation is Mills’ way of giving back to the people who helped him win the Gold Medal. He says they have built dialysis clinics and food banks on reservations. Mills says they have also drilled wells to bring in water. For the 50th anniversary last year the “Dream Starter” program was launched. It allow young Native Americans to take their idea for empowering their community and work with a non-profit group to launch it. Mills says Running Strong is making grants available to make it happen. 

Mills considers himself blessed to go from the brink of suicide to find commonality. And he has been able to reach out and make the world a better place.

Gordon Evans became WMUK's Content Director in 2019 after more than 20 years as an anchor, host and reporter. A 1990 graduate of Michigan State, he began work at WMUK in 1996.
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