Our return flight from Tokyo, Japan was a time for relaxing, sleeping and reflecting on all that has happened to us during the past 8 months. Patricia has been amazingly supportive and her presence in Tokyo proved vital to my Olympic 10,0000 meter victory. It has emerged as our Olympic triumph.
Our flight was also a time to contemplate where we go from here, however my mind would only focus on the three coaches who had influenced my training and life. Coach Tony Coffin, my high school coach who was most like my father, taught me how to live, balancing my life in order of God, family and education. Coach Easton challenged me to accept that I alone was responsible for my journey in life. Coach Tommy Thomson, like Coach Coffin, taught me to believe in myself. He helped me bring order to my life, balancing it spiritually, mentally and physically with responsibility and accountability as a husband, father and Marine, all while pursuing my Olympic dream and strengthening a fragile spirit.
With Patricia resting her head on my shoulder, semi asleep, the Pan American airlines captain made an announcement: We are 1 ½ hours from landing. My final thoughts were how all three of my coaches in their own way with spoken or unspoken words, helped me understand the magic my father spoke about creating. It was simply finding one’s positive purpose in life. The Olympic quest was “a purpose” to help me better understand my total being. Now that quest has culminated in a very sacred manner.
The plane touches down. We are back on USA soil. Our only “purpose” now is to go directly and as quickly as possible to our 18 month old daughter, Christy.
We are approaching officer’s housing at Camp Pendleton. Patricia sees the sign first. “Home of Olympic Champion Lt. Billy Mills”! I slow down, she looks and says, “Don’t you dare stop!” We continue. We pull into the driveway, before coming to a stop, Patricia is out of the car and running towards the house. Her mother has been caring for Christy and we knew Christy was still up. Entering our home, seeing Christy with her little arms tightly around her mother’s neck is witnessing a nurturing gift of family and love.
I place my arms around both of them. Christy looks at me, clapping her hands and says, “Daddy!” but chooses to stay in Mommy’s arms.
We are thrilled being invited to dinner at the home of Coach Tommy and Anne Thomson. The evening was incredible. We started by talking about our Olympic experiences, then quickly moved to the present. Coach shared the Marines would terminate their elite track and field team on June 30, 1965. Vietnam was their focus now. The Corps still wants a small contingent of athletes to compete until June 30th. I am one of them.
We also discussed the duties involving promotional and public relations activities the Marine Corps was considering for me. There were already a number of requests confirmed.
The schedule would make it very challenging for me to train at a world class level. However, the Marine Corps was looking at another world class performance during the 1965 spring track and field season.
The first out-of-state travel was November 8, 1964, three weeks after returning from Tokyo. It started with a gala Kansas homecoming in Patricia’s hometown, Coffeyville, Kansas, and was a prelude of what was to occur frequently over the next 12 months.
Our landing late afternoon, November 8, at McGugin Airport in Coffeyville was met with the high school and junior college bands playing “From the Halls of Montezuma.”
We received a rousing welcome from hundreds of cheering friends, family and citizens. We were paraded in a 33 unit celebration. Flags in downtown Coffeyville proclaimed welcome home signs to Patricia and me.
Four hundred students in second-story windows unfurled 20,000 ticker tape streamers. There were bands, floats and the parade was highlighted by a Marine Corps color guard. It was humbling and inspiring, realizing the honoring was in equal parts USA, Marines and Olympic achievement. The moment belonged to them as much as Patricia and me.
The banquet was a time for me to relax and enjoy the camaraderie with Coach Tony Coffin and a few other family members and friends.
It also gave Coach Easton and me an opportunity to continue expanding on a relationship I felt we both wanted but needed a better understanding of. His closing remarks at the banquet touched me and also gave us direction.
“When Billy kicked down the stretch, it was the most moving spectacle that I have ever witnessed in my life. When he was at KU, he hadn’t matured enough, but I always felt he had a chance for greatness. He gave me the privilege that is accorded few coaches. I got to see the culmination of all our dreams. And in the most fantastic situation – with the chips down – in the Olympics. It was the greatest race that has ever been run in the Olympics.”
The celebration in Lawrence, Kansas was of equal enthusiasm. Spending some time with my former KU teammates was the highlight.
Our time at Haskell was a sharing of emotions and love. I spoke to the students, we casually visited and then Tony Coffin had me stand as 900+ students lined up to congratulate me. With some, I shook hands, others, a hug, and many telling me their dreams! Frequently I was overcome as many shared the challenges they faced in life and how I inspired them on.
We returned to Camp Pendleton to prepare for the next engagement and try to squeeze training in between. My track goals still seemed possible, but I needed more distance training and speed endurance work.
Of all the appearances I made, there was one that influenced the words of my father. “Find your passion, son, develop your skills to equal the passion, bring them together and create the magic!” (Find your purpose!)
It was the honoring ceremony we attended late spring 1965. We returned to my hometown in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The sacred lands and tribal headquarters of the Oglala Lakota nation.
As we approached Pine Ridge, my thoughts were of Oliver Red Cloud, descendant of Chief Red Cloud. Two years before the Olympic games, he said if I make the USA Olympic team, I will also be representing the Lakota. He said he will take our sacred pipe and pray to the four directions, Mother Earth and to the Creator of all that is.
He will pray not for me to win, but to represent myself with dignity and humility. He will pray for me to honor myself, to honor my family, tribal nation and country.
Now today, two years later and with the Olympics in the past, we arrive in Pine Ridge. As we park, we cannot see the end of the gathering of people. We are receiving an ecstatic reception. It is as if I could feel their emotions of respect, but also of hope and belief in their own dreams. For a brief moment, I was them and they were me. We were one! It was a moment I would never forget!
Words cannot describe the genuine humility I felt meeting some of our most traditional leaders. Individuals who command great respect in their own right and are direct descendants of our most dignified and noble ancestors… Ben Black Elk, son of Nick Black Elk, a holy man of the Oglala; Edgar Red Cloud and Charley Red Cloud, direct descendants of Chief Red Cloud and Charles Under Baggage.
During the honoring ceremony, I was given my Lakota name. It was earned in a traditional way: Tamakoce Te’kirila*. (*Note: This is the traditional spelling of my Lakota name as written by the elders in my songs. Tamakoce Te’hila is the name I have become accustomed with, and holds the same meaning.)
I was given three songs, each composed by Ben Black Elk. Song one was sung by Ben Black Elk. It made reference to the holder of red metal, a time when the Lakota would make journeys to northern Lake Superior for copper. Only “Men Whom All Have Praised” earned the right to be the holders of the red metal.
Songs two and three were taught to the drum group and danced by Ben Black Elk, Edgar Red Cloud, Charley Red cloud and Charles Under Baggage. “They Dance His Deeds” as the drum group sang the words in Lakota.
“A hundred nations came with their flags to race.
There, a young Lakota man who is fearless went charging
Among them and (took their honor) making them weep.
It is me, Tamakoce Te’kirila. I have done this!”
The honoring ceremony came to a close!
As Patricia and I visit with leaders from the community, a young Lakota man, just a few years older than me, standing about 10 yards from me shouts: “Billy, what the hell are you trying to prove? You are one of us!” He lowered his head and in his intoxicated condition, stumbled away. One elderly gentleman held my hand and said, Billy, he lost his way. What you see is not who he is. Another said, you have been made a warrior today, Billy. It is time to start thinking about your giveaway.
We returned to Camp Pendleton with thoughts of the future. We are now a family. Patricia expressed her desire to finish her undergraduate degree and get her masters in art studio. I had to fulfill my Lakota give away, giving back to those who helped empower my Olympic journey.
I still had one year left in the Marine Corps and knew we were most likely to return to civilian life. There was one more major concern that was always on my mind. I called it post-athletic adjustment. I witnessed so many athletes falling victim to it after many years devoted to a sport, not being able to adjust to life after sport.
Feeling passionate about my give away, I knew this could be avoided by taking the Lakota virtue of generosity and giving back to those in need by empowering the visions of the elders and inspiring the dreams of our youth.
Patricia and I know the new dreams we are forming will take time to mature. Roads could become misleading. We are young. We are flexible and we are committed to stay the course. As for now, we will make the most out of my last 12 months in the Marine Corps. The Corps has given me the opportunity, the rest is up to me.
Coach Tommy helped me establish new goals for the 1965 track season. It will probably be my last season as a world class athlete. My first goal is a world record, the second goal is a number one ranking in the 10,000 meter run.
See you next month!
Note to reader:
My dream of having my Lakota give away was being nurtured during my final 8 months of training for the Olympic games.
It was confirmed with my victory, which I believe was a gift from a higher power.
Then it was solidified when my tribal nation held an honoring ceremony for me. I was given three songs and my deeds were danced as the songs were sung by a drum group.
I had earned my Lakota name in a traditional manner. I am Tamakoce Te’kirila. (Loves His Country)
The early highlight of our give away was the 1983 movie called ‘Running Brave’, a movie of our lives ‘based on truth.’
Next, we wanted to take the inspiration given to me and pass it on to a younger generation. We co-authored a book with Nicholas Sparks entitled “Lessons of a Lakota’’, also known as “Wokini, Your Personal Journey to Happiness and Self Understanding.”
We wanted to empower one’s journey combating generational trauma.
Patricia and I were looking for other ways to empower Native American communities in need. That was when magic happened, or perhaps a miracle!
We got an unexpected phone call that was the answer to our prayers.
We were introduced to Gene Krizek, a man of extraordinary strength, wisdom and vision. Gene also came from a military background, having served various roles in the US Air Force, both active and reserved, the Congress, the US State Department, for almost 40 years, and in his retirement he devoted his life to fighting the poverty he had witnessed on his travels around the world. Despite our different backgrounds, our common service and devotion to helping our fellow man brought us the partnership which would ultimately become mine and Patricia’s greatest give away.
Together, we co-founded Running Strong for American Indian Youth under Christian Relief Service Charities in 1986. (www.indianyouth.org)
In 2013 Running Strong was the recipient of the Presidential Citizens Medal…. I accepted the medal from President Barack Obama on behalf of Gene Krizek, our incredible Running Strong staff, our compassionate donors and the Native American communities we serve.
You are all Running Strong’s family.