Diabetes Forecast

Runner Billy Mills Keeps Making Strides

50 years after winning Olympic gold, he still inspires the diabetes community

By Lindsey Wahowiak , , , , ,
My moment, my Olympic race, I felt like it was a gift. I choreographed it, I orchestrated it, but when it happened I felt like it was a gift from a higher power.
Billy Mills

Olympian Billy Mills still runs. At 75, the Fair Oaks, Calif., resident does more than just pound the pavement. He also runs his nonprofit organization, Running Strong for American Indian Youth, which helps to combat diabetes among young Native Americans. It’s a subject that’s close to his heart: Mills was running with type 2 diabetes when he won the 10,000-meter race at the 1964 Summer Olympics. And he’s earned more than just a gold medal for his efforts: In 2012, President Obama honored him with the Presidential Citizens Medal.

Traveling the world with his wife, Patricia, an artist, to spread the message of exercise for health means Mills is constantly on top of his diabetes management. He can’t slow down. “I’ll die of something, but I’m doing my best to make sure it’s not of low blood sugar or the silent killer of type 2 diabetes,” he says.

Early Years

Mills, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, a swath of land larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. He didn’t run competitively as a youngster, but he describes a typical day of play this way: biking 15 miles, one way, to meet with friends; swimming across a lake, maybe half a mile each way; and then biking home, only to meet his dad to go fishing—their favorite spot was a 6-mile walk away. “I was getting a tremendous amount of cardiovascular exercise,” he says. “In my day, we entertained ourselves, and a lot of our entertainment called for exercise.”

When he started high school, Mills tried out for the cross-country and track-and-field teams, hoping his lifestyle on the reservation would prime him for a career as a distance runner. The future Olympian was cut his freshman year. But, he says, “I continued my cardiovascular play and also put in some distance-running workouts over the summer.” He also grew several inches. When he returned for his sophomore season, he made the cross-country team and promptly won his third race. He went undefeated for the rest of his high school cross-country career, he says. And he did nearly as well in track and field.

Taking a Turn

Mills accepted a full-ride scholarship to the University of Kansas, where he was a member of the cross-country and track teams. Freshmen weren’t allowed to compete in intercollegiate races, but they did time trials, and Mills continued to place among the top recruits in the country. But things were about to change. “A couple of minor decisions by my coach at the time played havoc with me as an athlete,” Mills says. For one thing, his coach wouldn’t allow him to eat his customary spoonfuls of honey before a race. “He simply stated, ‘This is college,’ ” Mills says. Runners typically loaded up on carbs four hours or more before a race and then did not eat again until after the race.

The new regimen left Mills exhausted. And that exhaustion was different than the kind he felt after a tough workout or a long day playing on the reservation, he says. Even his sweat was different during this time, Mills says: “It was more clammy, more sticky. It was not that free-flowing sweat of exercise.”

Doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with Mills, which led some people to speculate that he had low self-esteem. “They said, ‘You’re orphaned, you grew up in poverty, and you’re a minority. You have to learn how to deal with those issues,’ ” he says. And on two occasions, he says, he thought of suicide. 

After a college running career that didn’t meet his expectations, Mills graduated in January 1962 and took a commission in the U.S. Marine Corps. His new bride, Patricia, noticed he had been feeling down—and that he had quit running for several months. She suggested he go out for a run. “I felt spiritual running,” Mills says, but he still wasn’t at 100 percent. At a visit to a Navy doctor in 1963, he was finally given an oral glucose tolerance test and diagnosed as “borderline diabetic,” although he believes now that he was already living with type 2 diabetes.  

A Taste of Greatness

Mills worked to control his diabetes with a healthful eating plan. He also got back into running competitively, hoping to achieve his dream of running in the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Within 11 months, Mills had his diagnosis, changed his eating habits—and the way he trained as a runner—and made it to the finals of the men’s 10,000-meter race (about 6.2 miles). An underdog and virtual unknown (the Olympics website notes that leading up to the race, not a single reporter asked Mills a question), he came from behind in the last lap to win the gold medal with a time of 28 minutes, 24.4 seconds. He is still the only person from the Western Hemisphere ever to win that event.

 Mills is often touted as the second Native American to win an Olympic medal (the first was Jim Thorpe). He dismisses that notion, however, noting that Native Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku won three gold medals in swimming in the 1912 Olympics. And Mills’s achievements go beyond the Olympic 10K. He also made the Olympic marathon team in 1964 and broke seven American records in running.

His achievements on the track led to major honors: Sports Illustrated named him South Dakota’s Athlete of the 20th Century. Runner’s World magazine called his 10,000-meter race the second-greatest Olympic distance-running moment of all time. A painting of him (done by his wife) hangs in the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. His story was captured on film in 1983’s Running Brave. And in the 2012 book The 100 Greatest Track & Field Battles of the 20th Century, Mills’s Olympic win was ranked No. 1. Mills has also written a book, Lessons of a Lakota, with Nicholas Sparks.

Giving Back

Mills says his success has felt like a blessing, and it’s inspired him to reach out to others, especially Native American youth. “My moment, my Olympic race, I felt like it was a gift,” he says. “I choreographed it, I orchestrated it, but when it happened I felt like it was a gift from a higher power. I wanted to take that inspiration given to me and give it back.”

So Mills, along with Eugene Krizek, started Running Strong for American Indian Youth, first as a 1986 project of Christian Relief Services Charities and now as an independent nonprofit organization that works to help American Indian people meet their immediate survival needs—food, water, and shelter—while also focusing on increasing self-sufficiency and self-esteem in Native communities. Part of that work includes diabetes prevention and management education for adults and especially for youth, says Mills. About 1 in 6 American Indians lives with diabetes. Mills leads by example—he tells others how he has taken control of his diabetes with healthy eating, exercise, and the “frame of mind” to succeed.

“What I attempt to do when I talk to young people who may be at risk, whether they’re Native American or not, I try to take the virtues and values of our culture, our tradition, and our spirituality … and transfer those into current-day, powerful pursuits,” he says. “It’s the virtues and the values that give us confidence, give us direction, and give us clarity of mind to stay the course in our pursuit of excellence that’s positive and enjoyable. I transfer those values toward my goal of controlling my diabetes.”

Mills knows firsthand how daunting a diabetes diagnosis can feel. He’s dealt with it for 50 years: the highs and lows, both physical and emotional. But when he talks with kids, he doesn’t try to get them to move mountains. He wants to make the journey less burdensome, so he focuses on improvement, not just fitness. Simple choices made every day—like avoiding one slice of bread with a layer of butter, for example—can add up to healthy weight loss or at least stem a slow creep upward. Talking to someone about that, he says, “she realizes it’s a long journey, but it’s a very sacred journey that gives her more hope.”

He talks about eating a balanced, indigenous diet of natural foods. Even while traveling, he tries to work from a traditional food color wheel (a little something each of red, green, yellow, brown, and white foods—vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains, and legumes) or a four-day food rotation for the main, protein-rich dish (one day you eat something from the ground, a lean meat such as venison; the next, something from the air, such as chicken or turkey; then something from the water, such as fish; and then a plant source, such as beans). While everyone’s dietary needs are different, Mills says using traditional food guidelines can help keep communities healthy. “I’m not pushing what I eat on them but explaining that’s how I take control,” he says.

No Sign of Slowing

In 2014, Mills plans to continue his mission of traveling the country and world, spreading the word about athletics, healthy eating, and celebrating cultural heritage. He’ll receive the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s highest honor, the Theodore Roosevelt Award. The University of Kansas will place a statue of Mills outside its new track. And of course, he’ll continue to travel with Patricia as she shows her art and teaches classes around the world. She’s the one who got him back on the road, and Mills says it’s his wife who continues to motivate him.

“My whole journey was not about me,” he says. “If I was not married to her, I would not have won a gold medal at the Games. She is as much a type 2 diabetic as I am, because she’s put up with the highs and lows. My life’s about both of us.”

Relive the Race

See highlights from Billy Mills’s extraordinary Olympic race at youtube.com/watch?v=5F5iCsymMj0.

Learn More

The American Diabetes Association has information and programs specifically for the American Indian and Alaska Native communities. Visit diabetes.org/americanindian to discover programs, get support, and see recipes.

Strength in Numbers

Want to get involved with Running Strong for American Indian Youth? Visit the organization’s Web page: indianyouth.org.



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