September 29, 1964: Saying goodbye to Patricia as I boarded the plane for Tokyo, Japan was difficult, even though she will be joining me on October 5. I just wish she was with me now.
My time during the long flight was spent thinking about similarities in traditions, culture, and heritage that might exist between our citizens and citizens of Japan, if any. One thought that was inspiring to me as a question was in Lakota culture, the Black Hills is the heart of everything that is. Seeing Mt. Fuji was breathtaking. “Is this the heart of everything that is to the Japanese?” I ask myself. Perhaps the Black Hills and Mt. Fuji can empower our quest to reach the top of Mt. Olympus.
October 5, 1964: A group of us are at Haneda Airport watching Pan American Airlines make its final approach. Everyone is aware the plane blew out a tire upon leaving Anchorage, Alaska. Foam has been laid on the runway as a precaution.
The expressions on the faces of those watching spoke volumes about the comfort of silent prayer. The pilot made a perfect landing. Patricia never looked so beautiful as she deplaned.
We are inquisitive checking into the Palace Hotel, knowing just across the street surrounded by a moat, is the Imperial Palace, home to the emperor Hirohito. Also a few blocks away is the Ginza, where one could find the most glamorous shopping and excellent restaurants in Japan.
We find a small, quaint restaurant and try sushi for the first time. Finishing our lunch of Japanese cuisine, we acknowledge a new entrée for our dining out pleasures.
Returning to the Palace Hotel, Patricia is exhausted. She retires to her room and I return to the Olympic Village.
Relaxing in my room I review my last two weeks of training and write the following:
“Week ending Sunday, September 27, 1964.
Week total: 95 miles
4 good days training. Great week.
(gold medal tokyo)
Week ending Monday, October 5
We lost a day crossing the International Dateline
Week total: 90 miles
Just keep sharp. A few 200 meters with lots of rest…
My review has me confident, centered around humility, with a spiritual strength I cannot explain.
Today October 10, 1964, is the opening ceremony of the XVIII Olympiad. The blue autumn sky appears magical. Marching into the stadium, hearing cheers of 83,000 spectators is inspiring.
The pageantry and festivity begin. The feeling is one of global unity through the dignity, character and beauty of global diversity. The Emperor of Japan, Emperor Hirohito, officially calls the XVIII Olympiad open. The final torchbearer, Yoshinori Sakai, enters the stadium carrying the Olympic flame.
The excitement is spontaneous with a feeling of sacredness and hope. On August 6, 1945, the atomic bomb was dropped, destroying Hiroshima. In the rubble of Hiroshima, one hour and a half after the explosion, Yoshinori Sakai was born. He represented the youth of Japan, peace, and seeing the world as one. The Olympic oath is taken. The Olympic rings are being formed in the sky by Japanese jet planes as the Olympic Opening Ceremony comes to a close and the Games begin.
October 11, 1964: We are relaxing on a tour bus about to leave for Kyoto. Patricia said how powerful the Opening Ceremonies were. We shared our views from the stands versus the infield. The bus is leaving.
Although I promised to go on this all-day tour with Patricia, my conscience tells me to rest physically today but still train mentally.
Whispering this to her, she responds, “Stay focused!” and assures me she will enjoy the day with her girlfriends. At the next light, I am off the bus.
9:30am, October 13, 1964: I am on my way to get my new track shoes. Adidas is the sponsor of the USA Track and Field team, providing us with the latest track shoes in technology, design and style. My shoes have a tear on the inside seam of the left shoe.
I am thrilled to be getting a new pair. They will be the first new pair of track shoes I will have owned. The thought places a smile on my face.
A man stops me by introducing himself as a reporter from Bombay, India.
“You are the American Indian, yes?”
I respond with a nod. He smiles and says, “We call you Red Indian.”
I say, “We call you East Indians.” We both laugh.
We talk about the greatest athlete of all time, Jim Thorpe.
The reporter said he wanted to do an article about me then asks, “How do you think you will fare?”
I look down and remain silent. He asks again, “How do you think you will fare?”
Raising my head and looking into his eyes, I hear my voice. It is a voice of humility but confident — “I am going to win, but please do not tell anyone.”
The reporter, with a look of curiosity and sincerity said, “You really feel what you said, don’t you?” He knew my answer without me replying.
He continues, “I will write an article starting with our brief conversation here and promise you it will not be published until a day after your race.” We shake hands and part.
Entering the Adidas store I give my shoe size to the USA representative for Adidas, who informs me size 11 is popular and he only has shoes for the potential medal winners.
My words are “But Adidas is our sponsor. I get a pair simply because I am on the US Olympic team.”
I quietly whisper, “But I am going to win!”
With his hand on my shoulder he says, “That’s a bunch of bull!” and escorts me out the door. I am furious, but will not go back in for fear of what I may say or do. Dick Banks, a television commentator, followed me out and says he will get me a pair of shoes. I thank Dick but say there’s no need as I leave for the Puma store.
After sharing my Adidas experience with the Puma representative, he gives me a pair of spikes. Again, as if someone else is speaking, my words are, “I need a new pair of flats for the victory stand.”
My words embarrass me, but help me realize the depth of my conviction. I also ask for a pair of marathon shoes.
He responds, “Don’t push your luck” as he places a pair of flats in my hands. Exiting the store, a gentleman from Tiger Shoe Co. follows me and gives me a pair of marathon shoes. Returning to my room waiting by my door is Adolf “Adi” Dassler, the founder and owner of Adidas, carrying several pairs of shoes. He apologized for his American employee, saying: “We in Germany honor our word. Sorry my American representative did not.”
Later, I decide to race in the Adidas and get on the victory stand in Puma.
The morning of October 14, 1964, is a cool and cloudy day. It rained all night. The track will be wet and heavy, producing slower times. In the afternoon around race time will be overcast. I do much better in this kind of weather. I am thrilled.
Getting on the bus to go to the stadium, my Olympic colleague Don Jeisy says, “Billy, I had a dream last night that you won the 10,000 meters.” He is excited. I want to talk to him, but afraid his dream may awaken my dream too soon, I say “Hold the thought. We’ll talk later.”
On the bus I sit down by a young lady from Poland. She asks, “What event are you in?”
“The 10,000 meters.”
She replies, “Today is the finals, who do you think will win?”
Moments pass, I finally respond. “I am going to win.”
We sit in silence to the stadium.
The race starts in a half hour and I am feeling all the symptoms of low blood sugar. Frantically asking anyone for a candy bar, a US trainer hands me one.
Someone comments, “This is the greatest field of distance runners ever assembled. Good luck, Billy.”
We are at the starting line. This is the moment I have etched into my heart and soul.
The starter’s pistol is fired, the Olympic 10,000 race is underway. The first lap is a cluster of runners. Cautiously, several of the top distance runners in the world are moving toward the front. I do what my mind and body has been trained to do… I move to become part of the lead pack. Completing the first lap, the Australian world record holder Ron Clarke takes charge of the race. He quickly settles into a world record pace as if conveying to spectators and competitors that he will not be denied.
Lap after lap runners fall off the pace. Mamo Wolde from Ethiopia takes the lead, only to have Clarke power back to the front, Clarke continues his blistering pace on a slow, wet track.
The lead pack has formed: Clarke, Gammoudi from Tunisia, Wolde and me. As we continue at world record pace, most of the top runners are falling off pace including Pyotr Bolotnikov, the 1960 Olympic 10,000 meter gold medalist from the Soviet Union, and New Zealand’s Murray Halberg, 1960 Olympic gold medalist in the 5,000 meters. (It would be awesome if my teammates, Ron Larrieu and Gerry Lindgren were with me in the lead pack. Gerry turned an ankle a few days ago and as of race time still did not know how he would fare.)
Feeling the effects of Clarke’s punishing pace, I do what I practiced in training, relaxing my body just a fraction to allow me to run as efficiently as I can to be as fast as I can without losing composure.
It’s working, but I lose 10 meters in the process and have to make it up before it lengthens. Closing the gap, I take the lead maintaining Clarke’s pace.
As expected, Clarke again assumes the lead, but surprisingly slows the pace. (Let him lead and I am in the race to the finish!)
Two laps to go and Clarke looks back. My thought is “He’s worried!” I take the lead just to make a presence.
Clarke continues his charges to the front, Gammoudi follows. Clarke again does not pick up the pace. My confidence is soaring!
There will be a sprint to the finish, but who will start first and when? Wolde is faltering!
We are starting the bell lap, only 400 meters to go! There is a runner we are about to lap, 15 meters in front of us. I am on Clarke’s shoulder, Gammoudi is tucked in behind me. Recalling that Clarke lost the Commonwealth Games by allowing himself to get boxed in, I move into lane two alongside of Clarke….he’s boxed in!
Clarke wants out of the box, I do not oblige. My focus turns to Gammoudi. It will be Gammoudi or me, if I chose, who starts the kick first. But Clarke pushes me, I stumble into the third lane, my legs buckle. Fighting to keep from falling, instantly my energy is depleted. Symptoms of low blood sugar or anger consumes me.
Clarke is back in the lead starting his drive to the finish. Gammoudi starts his devastating kick and is closing on Clarke at the same time I recover and close on Clarke’s shoulder. Gammoudi, already in full sprint, finds his window of opportunity closing. He squeezes between Clarke and me.
Two-hundred twenty-five meters to go. Gammoudi is driving toward the finish with Clarke in hot pursuit. With symptoms of low blood sugar and 8 yards behind, I decide to wait and with 120 meters to go make one final try!
Gammoudi, coming off the final turn, has 110 meters to the finish, Clarke is 2 meters back. I am 120 meters from the finish and accelerating. Lifting my knees, pumping my arms and lengthening my stride, but not gaining on them!
I am right in front of Patricia (her seat is 14 rows up). Telling myself I have to do it now, I may never be this close again, I pass a lapped runner with an eagle on his jersey! My mind flashes the past in front of me. “You have broken wings son, but some day you will have wings of an eagle.” Followed by, “I am going to win, but I may not get to the finish line first!”
The tape breaks across my chest! Wings of an eagle! I won! I won! I won!
Finding the runner I saw with the eagle on his jersey…. and finding, there was no eagle.
An official said, “Is there anything we can do for you?” “Yes! I want my wife!” Moments later in a stadium of 80,000 people, an official said to Patricia, “Please come with me. The Olympic champion wants his wife!”
Patricia and I hug and laugh, with tears of joy. I thank her for her support, belief and love.
Thanks to our friends, Marylou and Don Jeisey, Patricia and I celebrate our victory in a beautiful room at the Palace Hotel. In the early hours of October 15, 1964, I write in my journal:
“October 14. Olympic 10,000 meters. First place.
New Olympic record. Felt good and strong, except for one spot that was mental.
God was with me in my prayers.”
I healed a broken soul.
Back at the Olympic village, a young Japanese interpreter approaches me and delivers a letter. Unfolding it, I begin to read:
Dear Billy. I just saw the greatest race of my life. You are the greatest Jayhawker of all. It has been an honor to have coached you. Congratulations. Coach Easton.
I look up and University of Kansas Coach Easton is standing there. We hug and both know today is the first day of the rest of our lives.
See you next month for the Olympic marathon!