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EXCERPT | October 26, 1964

Out of Nowhere

Unheralded Billy Mills won Olympic gold in Tokyo

Orphaned at 13, Mills grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota. He took up running, he said, as part of his training to be a boxer. John Underwood reported for SI.

A 26-year-old Marine lieutenant named Billy Mills, seven-sixteenths Sioux Indian and 100% unspoiled by publicity (he had never had any), won the 10,000-meter run, the first American ever to do so. Mills—an unimpressive second in the Olympic trials—was an almost totally unknown quantity, to Americans as much as anyone else. He had never before won a major race, yet his time, 28:24.4, set an Olympic record; it was the fourth fastest 10,000 ever run; it broke the old American record by almost half a minute; and it was 45 seconds faster than Mills had ever run the distance before. It was an utter and absolute surprise.

Mills clung to the leaders until he was one of only three of the 36 starters still in touch with Australia's Ron Clarke, the prerace favorite (and world-record holder), who had set or forced the pace the entire way. With one lap to go, Clarke found himself boxed in by Mills on his right and a straggler in front. He moved out and pushed against Mills. At almost the same moment, Mohamed Gammoudi had started his kick and found Clarke and Mills in his way. The Tunisian shoved between them, getting the lead as Mills broke stride and stumbled out across the track. Clarke went after Gammoudi, but Mills seemed out of it. At the turn into the stretch, however, Mills lengthened his stride and picked up speed. He lammed past the Australian, caught Gammoudi and crossed the finish line three yards ahead.

Mills is now an advocate for Native American issues.

Cover Shots

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Photograph by T. TANUMA

STALKING HORSE Clarke (in white, center) set the pace for most of the race, but he never shook Mills (in blue, center), who waited until the stretch to make his winning move.