Road to Tokyo: After the Tokyo Olympics, New Friends and New Races Appear

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After setting a new American indoor 3 mile record on February 19, 1965, my indoor track and field season is basically over.

In reality however, I still have two more indoor races left. The next one is a 3 mile race on April 3rd in Wembley, England at the USA vs Britain indoor track and field meet. My final race (that may also be the final indoor race of my career) is in Berlin, Germany on April 7th at the USA vs Germany indoor track and field meet. The distance will be 3,000 meters.

But the excitement at the moment is inspired by our upcoming trip to San Vittore Olona, Italy for the Cinque Mulini (“Five Mills”) cross country race. It’s a very challenging race on a flat course that includes racing through five wheat mills spaced throughout the course. Cinque Mulini is becoming one of the world’s most prestigious cross country meets.

On February 22, 1965, when the USMC Special Services received the invitation for me to compete in San Vittore Olona, Italy, along with an invitation for Patricia, we were ecstatic.

I am fascinated by Italy and Greece. Both were on our dream vacation destinations. We were told we will visit some of the world’s most treasured historical sites; take a boat ride on Lake Maggiore to Laverno, Switzerland for lunch; and spend three full days in Rome before joining the USA team in London. We immediately confirmed. Italy is a dream come true… or so we thought!

The USA Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), our governing body, cancelled my acceptance within 24 hours. They informed me Patricia could not go! Our AAU would not allow her to accept her invitation and if she did I would lose my amateur standing and no longer be allowed to compete in the sport of track and field, cross country or road racing.

I was then told she would be replaced with a professional trainer representing the AAU.

The Marine Corps Special Services informed the AAU that Lt. Mills declined to accept the invitation, then explained to the Cinque Mulini cross country officials the reason why.

Fortunately the Italian sports officials appeared to have more creativity than our AAU officials. They re-invited me, sending the invitation to the AAU – with only my name on the invitation.

What occurred next created one of the most memorable weeks of my sports career, on the level of Tokyo Olympics.

Patricia became the guest of the people of San Vittore Olona, Italy. We were told they actually went door to door collecting donations for Patricia’s expenses. The compassion, unity and commitment they displayed in getting her to their community is forever etched in the depths of my heart and soul, filling Patricia and me with love, respect and thanks for their kindness!

It is now midafternoon in Italy, March 23,1965. Our plane “Alitalia Airlines” just touched down at the Milan International Airport.

We are excited with much anticipation to meet who I call the creative visionaries of the Cinque Mulini cross country race, Alfredo Turri and Paolo Cozzi. We will also be meeting Marika Vecchio and Peppino Galli, our interpreters.

Billy and Pat with Italian Cinque Mulini race organizers Alfredo Turri and Paolo Cozzi

The reception everywhere we go is as if we were meeting old friends or favorite relatives. Our interpreters, Marika and Peppino, are exceptional. They are very professional and yet make us feel like close friends travelling with them.

Billy and Pat with Italian translators Peppino and Marika

Patricia said to me, with a smile: “They were made for each other. I wonder if they will find that out?”

The highlight of our sightseeing before the race was seeing the Last Supper, the late 15th century mural painting by Leonardo da Vinci ,housed by the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. It truly is one of the world’s most recognizable paintings. I was mesmerized and challenged to review the depth of my spirituality. My feelings were of empowerment, humbleness, and rebirth.

Tomorrow morning is the race. It is 6:45 pm, and Patricia and I are alone in the hotel restaurant ordering dinner. The maître d’ wants me to win the race and is very concerned about the foods I choose. Patricia orders his recommendation and I order pasta and steak. His words are: “Billy, Billy. Please no bifstecca (beef steak) please!”

After an enjoyable, relaxing dinner, I notice the worried look in the maître d’s eyes, as he said, “Good luck tomorrow, Billy, see you for dinner”.

It’s Sunday afternoon, March 28th, and the race organizers and the people of San Vittore Olona have been most gracious. I felt a strong sense of spiritualty and curiosity coming from the people intrigued with my heritage and culture. I, in turn, felt they were aware of my fascination in theirs. The feeling that we are all related does travel with me in my journeys.

A large field of international runners is called to the starting line. I quickly review my race strategy. When we jogged the course yesterday, I noticed running through five wheat mills could be challenging if you are in a tightly bunched group of lead runners.

Also, I don’t hurdle very well, so jumping over various obstacles including ditches could be extra dangerous for me. My decision was to lead from the start!

The starter gives the command, fires the pistol and we are off. I sprint to front and several follow, but the others are well aware of the oxygen debt that can occur by starting too fast and let us go.

Never experiencing such an enthusiastic cross country crowd of spectators, my mind and body enjoys the moment. I know they were not just encouraging me, but the entire field of runners were being applauded and encouraged as we raced by large groups of fans along the course.

This is their race. Their “Cinque Mulini Cross Country Meet”. I felt inspired and wanted to do my best like the runners before me and help take Cinque Mulini to the next level, so I quicken my pace.

My pace is breaking the field. The sound of the footsteps behind me is receding as is the cheering of the crowd I just passed.

Exiting the last wheat mill, I am in a zone, focused. The cheering from the fans of Cinque Mulini gathered at the finish line increases. Lengthening my stride, my pace increases in sequence with their cheering. The last 100 yards is like a welcome home party. Crossing the finish line, I see Patricia enjoying herself with our interpreters, Marika and Peppino. My winning time is insignificant, but my margin of victory, 28 seconds, has everyone abuzz with excitement. The tone of respect and appreciation their congratulations convey tells me they believe my victory has taken their race “Cinque Mulini Cross Country” to the next level of prestigious races.  I am thrilled and humbled.

Back at our hotel, rested and famished, Patricia and I make our way to the dining room.  Our maître d’, looking refreshed, smiles and greets us with congratulations, then asks, “Bifstecca tonight?”

Early morning we are in a car driving to Lake Maggiore towards the Swiss Alps. We board a small speed boat and set off for Laverno, Switzerland, about an hour away, for lunch at a restaurant on the waterfront with a magnificent view of the Alps. The trip was relaxing and views offered ranged from romantic and inspiring to spiritual. What a way to recover from the race and what has already been the most incredible week imaginable.

We are back at the hotel, saying goodbye. Marika and Peppino take us to the airport. It was hard saying goodbye, but exciting to look forward to Rome and sightseeing for the next three days.

Our days in Rome, Italy, represented the speed and force of a whirlwind.  After checking into our hotel, we went immediately to the Trevi fountain to participate in the coin throwing. Patricia and I each held a coin in our right hand, made a wish and, threw the coin over our left shoulder. As we sat and enjoyed the late evening studying the fountain, we asked each other: “Do you think our wishes will come true?”

We talked about the 1954 movie “Three Coins in a Fountain”. After a few more photos, we went back to our hotel for a midnight dinner.

March 30, 31, and April 1, our whirlwind tour continued. We enjoyed the excellent Italian cuisine as we visited numerous sites such as the Roman Colosseum; St. Peter’s Basilica, the burial site of Saint Peter; the catacombs from the Roman Empire and many more.

We are saddened by our Italian tour coming to an end but it provided memories and friendships for a lifetime.

It is April 1 and we depart for London, England to meet up with the USA National Track and Field team as we prepare for the USA vs Britain indoor track meet on April 3.

See you in April!

billy mills signature

Billy and Pat

 

P.S. — Our Road to Tokyo journey continues but is nearing its end. No foreign spectators will be admitted to the attend the 2021 Olympic Games this summer, July 23 to August 8, 2021. The IAAF World Athletics Association has cancelled their program which I was involved with. It saddens me that Patricia and I will not be attending the Games with our daughters, but we will definitely be watching on television. I will be writing my last Road to Tokyo entry in August, 2021, coinciding with the Olympic Games Closing Ceremonies.

Patricia and I will see you soon for more writing about the England and Germany track meets.

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