The first big medal for athlete Billy Mills came in 1964 at the Tokyo Olympics, when he unexpectedly won gold in the 10,000 meter run. He is the only American to ever accomplish this feat, just the second Native American to win an Olympic gold medal, and, being what he describes as “a borderline diabetic” who was hypoglycemic at the time, he was an underdog’s underdog going into the race.
Almost 50 years later, he was awarded another important medal, this time by President Barack Obama at the Presidential Citizens Medal ceremony at the White House on February 15. The award, established in 1969, is the second-highest civilian honor in the United States, intended to recognize individuals “who have performed exemplary deeds of service for their country or their fellow citizens,” according to the White House. Nearly 6,000 people were nominated this time around for the award, and Mills was one of 18 honorees this year.
Upon accepting the encased medal and shaking the president’s hand, the Oglala Lakota athlete, ever humble, took the opportunity to offer a thank-you of his own as he whispered into Obama’s ear, “The world is blessed to have you as a leader.”
Obama, grinning, whispered back, “Thanks, you still look fast.”
Mills later said that, today, at the age of 75, he is not as fast as he once was physically, but insisted he is much faster mentally. “I go jogging and walking on the bike trail,” Mills said, “and my mind is still preparing me for an Olympic gold medal. My mind is preparing me for the world record. I never want to lose that.”
He added that his whispered exchange with the president was short and simple, but it meant so much to Mills, whose wife, Patricia, an artist, watched proudly from the audience. The ceremony, which was streamed and on television, was viewed by many delighted Native Americans around the nation.
For one, it got the retired Olympian thinking about politics. A registered Republican, he broke ranks with his party to support Obama’s campaign in 2008 and again in 2012, and he’s glad to have done so because Obama symbolizes to him the ability to regulate greed, while healing relationships between Native nations, the United States, and the world at large.
Obama spent much of his congratulatory speech recognizing the several Presidential Citizens Medal winners that day, talking about the importance of citizenship, and what it means to be an American. “In America, we have the benefit of living in this big and diverse nation,” the president said. “We’re home to 315 million people who come from every background, who worship every faith, who hold every single point of view. But what binds us together, what unites us, is a single sacred word: citizen.”
The president’s words held special meaning for Mills, who is a Lakota citizen and an American citizen who served as a first lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. He said after the ceremony that he’d like to see mainstream America better understand Indian and tribal values, which is why he advocates for a Native American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, and for Indian law to be included in bar exams. “I find comfort in advocating intelligent and adaptive programs of change to bring Indians into the mainstream as full-fledged citizens,” he said. “If I didn’t do that, I would be a very angry person.”
The president’s speech also got Mills thinking about where his life began, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and the difficult journey he took to become an athlete and now respected fitness and cultural advocate for Indians. A well-known story about Mills is that his dad told him that he had broken wings after his mother passed away. “You have to find a dream, son,” he recalls his father telling him. “It’s that pursuit of a dream that will heal you.”
When Mills left the reservation to attend college, he was rocked by culture shock, similar to what many Indians face even today while trying to navigate through mainstream American. After being left out of groups, feeling totally alone and not wanting to disturb his family with his troubles, Mills found himself seriously contemplating suicide.
As a junior at the University of Kansas, he was on the edge. “I felt deep inside that I didn’t belong, and that America didn’t want me to belong,” he remembered.
Soldiering on through that mental anguish, one day Mills heard his father, who had walked on by then, say, “Don’t. You must follow your dream.”
With that, Mills wrote down this goal: “Gold medal, 10,000 meter run.” He graduated college, entered the military and soon found his soul feeling much stronger. The strength catapulted him to that fateful day in 1964 when he did what no American had done before, or has since.
Since that win, there have been many more victories for Mills, including the growth of a loving family, books and cinematic ventures, opportunities to travel the world, and his happy, spiritual- and cultural-infused life in California.
But he has never forgotten where he came from, reminders of which were present as he received his latest medal. Several of the co-honorees for this ceremony were teachers who were killed at the Newtown, Connecticut shooting tragedy in December. Many young children died in that massacre as well—all of which served to remind Mills of his important purpose in working as a spokesman on behalf of Indian young people via his Running Strong for American Indian Youth organization. Since 1986, he has used that platform to promote physical and mental health, housing assistance, and cultural development for young Indians and their families.
“It was a sacred moment to be honored alongside those heroes who worked so hard to protect their children,” Mills said. “It was a reminder that we need to keep the sacredness alive in our country, which I am trying in a small way to do through my work.”
Work keeps Mills going, and he plans to continue growing Running Strong, promoting the American Indian Athletic Foundation, and launching suicide-prevention and crisis-intervention programs for young Native people on reservations.
And if you happen to visit Mills at his home or office, don’t expect to see his Presidential Citizens Medal displayed next to his Olympic gold medal. He has given that Olympic medal to his grandson in an effort to encourage the young boy to spread his own wings—mentally, physically and in his educational pursuits. “That’s his medal now,” Mills said. “It has completed the circle.”