The Gun Lap


Billy Mills

The following are edited excerpts from the keynote address at the 15th annual Indian Education Conference at Arizona State University, Tempe, on April 5, 1974. The speech was prefaced with a showing of film from the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo in which Mr. Mills won the 10,000 meter race.

In reference to the film, and as an example, is Ron Clark, who, with a philosophy of life, dedicated four years of his life for one purpose: to win a gold medal at the games. He was running 120 miles a week, twice a day, seven days a week. When the games were over, the best Ron Clark could do was third place. He was 28 years old, standing there with tears coming down his cheeks. And I walked up to him and I'm on Cloud 13 and I said, "Ron," and all I could think about was gosh, Bill, you're the Olympic champion, a gold medal winner, and I said, "Ron, what are your plans?" assuming the man was going to quit, assuming he was going to fade away. He looked at me right in the eyes and he said, "I'll tell you what my plans are, Bill. I'm going to continue. I'm going to give a total effort. And I started laughing. I said, "What the hell's a total effort? I thought you just gave one." He said, "I did. I gave a complete effort, and I was beaten, but I'm going to give another, and another." And I told him to define a total effort, and it sounds trite, but it gets back to the purpose of a philosophy of life. He defined a total effort for me and in his own words, he said, "You know, Bill, a total effort to me is physically, mentally, and in my own manner, spiritually. I could care less what the hell anybody else thinks about me, but with a total effort I know I'm going to possess the greatest key to success."

I'm generalizing, but anybody with a philosophy of life is going to be able to accept defeat and not quit. You may change perspectives, you may alter your goals, re-adjust, but you're aware of your many, many strengths. You're also aware of a few or many weaknesses. But you're able to at least have a better, a capable perspective of your whereabouts in society. I'm convinced again without a doubt that those aspects can be learned, and we can teach them through recreation, through proper use of leisure time: a better self image. Meeting the simple basic growth needs, emotional, social, psychological, cultural type needs, and in many cases, religious needs that have to be met before any youngster can begin to progress and, in this case, use an academic atmosphere.

Let me mention some aspects in regards to mental attitude, things that helped me, in reference again, to the Indian world. The reality of mental attitude in this country, on this land, started with the Indian people-the spiritual leaders-the medicine men. In the Oglala Sioux aspect they're spiritual leaders, people who were, to a great degree, capable of understanding the subconscious mind, capable of controlling their own destiny, rather than having destiny control them: the subconscious mind being nothing but a big warehouse. Everything you put into the subconscious mind, be it negative or positive, is stored back there. Everything you see, you touch, you taste. If most of the impressions are stamped negative, you're going to respond negative. It's that simple. If most of the impression are stamped positive, you're going to respond positive the majority of the time. One of the most beautiful opportunities--85% of the time-is in recreational programs, recreation being defined as anything that's constructive and enjoyable, the vast concept of your imagination. Yet we totally neglect it.

We have to help the youngsters, we have to teach them to dream dreams. We have to nurture the dreams so they're dreaming dreams and eventually the dreams become real.

Little Jerry Lindgren had a dream. He was a high school senior, 5'2", 17 years old, 119 pounds. He wanted to make the U.S. Olympic team. What did he do? He chose to run 250 miles a week. You don't do that living in a vacuum. You've got to have a philosophy of life. You have to want it. You have to be able to close your eyes and reach out and almost touch it, to taste it. He not only made the U.S. Olympic team as a high school senior-I'm twice his size, he looked like death warmed over-he not only made the team but a year later he set the world record in the six mile run.

Goal Setting

Goal setting -. I've never had the opportunity, for example, like my ancestors in reference to a vision quest, but I think in my own mind I've had a lot of vision quests. I spent two years running 100 miles a week, twice a day, seven days a week; and at least six times a day just being able to close my eyes and visualize myself breaking the tape at the Olympic games. And this was implanted in my mind so strong, I could close my eyes and I could hear 85,000-90,000 people in the stadium screaming. I could stand, with my eyes closed, and I could almost feel the tape breaking across my chest. It was so real. Living this for two years, the race turned out almost exactly the way that I had imagined for a two year period of time.

Not everybody is going to accomplish a goal, but if you set a goal, you develop a basic philosophy of life. If you fail, it's not failure; there's no such thing with a philosophy as failing except when you give up. You may alter your goals again. If you don't accomplish them, you become more stronger in just accepting the realities of life.

In 1958, George Young of Casa Grande, Arizona, wanted to make the Olympic team. He ran for two years, running 100 miles a week. He made the team, and his goal was first, second or third at the games. He's in the steeple chase jumping over hurdles three feet high, a two-mile race. Five hundred yards to go in the race he hits a hurdle, he falls flat on his face, from sheer exhaustion. His knees are bleeding, his elbows torn-he's going to quit. But simply because he had a philosophy of life, he jumps back up and he starts to drive. He came within 2/10 of a second from accomplishing his goal in the world of sports and saw two years fade away.

He trains for two more years, goes to Rome, Italy, goes to Tokyo, Japan in 1964. Six years of training now. He ran the fastest steeple chase in the Olympic games' history. Only one problem: on that day, four men ran faster. He would have won every other Olympic game (record) but he finished fifth. George looked at me and he said, "Bill, to hell with it. You run six years, 100 miles a week, to hell with it, I'm going to quit."

He called me three weeks later and he said, "You know, I want this so bad, I can't quit. Every step I take, subconsciously throughout the day it occurs to me, a medal at the games." He starts training for four more years. Ten years of training. Let me describe his race: The race gets underway. He lived and trained at [almost] sea level in Casa Grande. Mexico City being a mile and a half high, his greatest competitor was the altitude, plus the runners from Africa who lived and trained at that altitude. The race gets underway, lap after lap runners begin to fall behind. George had told me before the race, "Bill, the only thing that counts is when I get up in the morning and when I look into the mirror I see George Young. I'm aware of my many, many weaknesses, but I'm also going to be aware of a few strengths that I have, and I know if I go at these strengths, they're going to take me as far as I want to go. Or, if not, I'm going to be able to accept the realities of life."

The race is underway. Lap after lap runners fall behind. There's five laps to go, he's into eighth place. There's three laps to go, he moves into third. Two laps to go, he's into second place. Ten years of training. The gun lap. Four hundred meters to go he accelerates, moving into first place. Then it was like running into a brick wall: the lack of air, the thin oxygen. His legs began to wobble, his back began to tighten. He began to lose his vision. Eighty-five thousand people in the stadium screaming: be said he heard nothing. But one runner goes by him. Then he could see another. Another. And the next 15 yards he's back in fourth place. Ten years of training, 350 yards to go. He said he'd never hurt so bad in his life, he was going to quit.

Twenty Seconds of Pain

But the only reason he didn't quit is because he had a basic philosophy of life. You know, if you don't possess a philosophy of life, that eventually becomes a philosophy-a negative one. But with a philosophy you're going to be able to cope with realities. You may be defeated, but you don't cave in. George decided on one more try. He was going to accelerate and get back into third place. He accelerated, he got nowhere, they pushed him back. He accelerated again, they pushed him back. He came off the curve, about 150 yards to go, he was going to quit again. He was going to trade ten years of sacrifice, ten years of training for approximately 20 seconds of pain.

George Young, rather than quitting, decided to make one more attempt. And not to get back into third. He's now 90 yards from the finish line and he decided, "I'm going to drive on through to the tape, because maybe one of the three men ahead of me might quit." George kept driving. Nobody quit, but less than five yards to the finish line, the runner from Australia, from sheer exhaustion, began to crumble. As his body crumbled, George Young went by him, accomplishing a goal in the world of sports by 1/10 of a second.

One-tenth of a second. Ten years of training and of sacrifice. And yet, in reality, the difference between success and failure to a great degree is less than that, is less than a tenth of a second. But we need a philosophy of life. One of the most effective ways, again, in which to teach a philosophy-you can't really teach one, but to lay down the foundations of life so our youth can acquire a philosophy-would be in the 85% of the time they're outside of the academic atmosphere. But there needs to be the training, the organization, the implementation, the programs, the staffing, and most vital of all, leadership.


The ultimate degree of competition is to compete against yourself. Not your fellow man, or your neighbor, but yourself; to become aware of your many, many weaknesses, and your strengths, to get a better perspective of your whereabouts. Those can be done, to the greatest degree, where the youngsters spend the greatest amount of leisure time, recreation programs, at home, reading, whatever it may be in the vast scope of recreation. But I also think there's a way, and I think it can contribute, again, to building a better tomorrow. It helps you to have people who believe in you. It helps you understand and look for a person's strengths, and to accept their weaknesses. It is the basic concept of love, sharing, communicating.

Let me share the 10,000 meters with you. I'm rooming with Jerry Lindgren from Spokane, Washington. Jerry's coach came in, two hours before the race, and he said, "Jerry, here's a list of the top ten distance runners in the world, the men you have to beat to win the gold medal. I want to review this with you."

I'm on my bed and I'm thinking, "The top ten, the list of the top ten in the world. My name has to be on that list." He goes through the entire list and I'm nowhere on there. I began to lose confidence. The coach said, "Jerry, is there anybody we might have overlooked?" Little ol' Jerry gets out of bed, nothing but his shorts on, so skinny he looked like death warmed over. Jerry answers, "Yeah, coach. Billy Mills. I've been training with Bill. I think he has a chance to win." Somebody believing in me! The confidence goes back up.

The assistant traffic field coach on the U.S. Olympic team doesn't see me as he talks to the trainer: "You know, it's a shame Lindgren sprained his ankle, because we have no idea how strong it's going to be until the race gets underway. If his ankle doesn't hold up, all we have left is Mills." My response was to hell with him. I grew up in that kind of a world with nobody believing in me.

It's time to go to the track. I'm going out of the Olympic village and there's a phone call. I pick up the phone, I'm thousands of miles away in Tokyo, Japan. It's my sister from the Pine Ridge Reservation. She can't even afford to have a phone, let alone calling me in Tokyo. But the simple thought when I heard her voice: somebody back home is thinking about me. Somebody cares. The confidence goes back up.

The Race

We are halfway into the 10,000 meter race and cross the three mile line in 13 minutes and 30 seconds, within one second of my fastest three mile ever. I was going to quit. I was in fourth place. I dig out, I decided to take the lead, go one more lap. Then I'll quit while I was in front. This way I had all kinds of excuses-I would have won if . . . you know? I took the lead, I went one more lap. I looked into the infield to see if it was safe. Nothing but Japanese faces. It was safe. I knew nobody. I glanced into the stadium. Eighty-five thousand people in the stadium. Who do I focus in on? My wife. She's standing there crying. It dawned on me why she was crying.

She was aware that for the first time in my life I was giving a complete type effort and I was beginning to develop a basic philosophy of life, and that I'm Indian, and I couldn't quit. You continue. One more lap, one more lap, to where the film picks up the race. Three hundred and fifty yards to go, I'm on Clark's shoulder. He accidentally pushes me into the third lane, at least he told me later it was an accident. I stumbled. I closed back on Clark's shoulder. Gumudi, the Tunisian, broke between us. And I quit again. The Ethiopian, the Russian had fallen behind. It was obvious I had third place for sure. I quit.

You can't quit. Number one, if I quit, the first thing that went through my mind was it would not have been Billy Mills who quit, it would have been, somewhere, in what little print there would have been, Oglala Sioux. That's what all people would have remembered. I had decided to live up to Indian standards, and if you analyze Indian standards you're going to find they're among the most difficult in the world to live up to. But again in reality with another look, they're no different from any other standards throughout the universe.

One hundred and twenty-five yards to go, 100 yards. The thoughts started to change from one more try to I can win, I can win, I can win. Sixty yards, 40, 30 yards to go. The thoughts changed from I can win, I can win to I won, I won, I won. And then in the next few seconds there's the tape breaking across your chest, being in a complete trance, other than your own thoughts and the throbbing of your heart. Over and over in my mind, I won, I won, I won.

What brought me back to reality was the Japanese official (and I think this has a lot of impact) who came running up to me and his first words were: "Who are you?" And the beauty of it is, for the first time in my life I was able to tell somebody who I am.