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Mills' Miracle : When He Won the 10,000 at Tokyo 30 Years Ago Today, It Might Have Been the Greatest Upset of All Time

October 14, 1994|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thirty years ago today at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, arguably the best of all American sports stories sprang from the gallant heart of a Camp Pendleton Marine lieutenant named Billy Mills.

On second thought, it's not arguable.

You need to understand where I'm coming from on this. I've been writing newspaper sports stories for 32 years, back then at the Oceanside Blade-Tribune, the home paper for Camp Pendleton events. But nothing in all those years shocked me the way this one did. When reports of Mills' victory went around the world that day, an old city editor told me the news. I thought, "It's got to be some kind of typo. Or maybe it's a Billy Mills from England or someplace."

In the spring of 1964, I had covered several Pendleton dual meets. Not once had I had reason to interview Mills. He never won a race. He wasn't close to being the best performer on the Camp Pendleton track team, much less the best in the world.

So, as I said, 30 years later, it's still the best of all sports stories.

Some contenders:

--Bob Mathias' decathlon victory at the 1948 Olympics, when he was 17. Two months before those London Olympics, Mathias had not only never competed in a decathlon, he had never competed in six of the 10 events. Four months before London, he had never seen a javelin.

--The 1990 Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas fight. Only two days before, when Douglas, a 48-1 shot, said at a Tokyo news conference that the heavyweight championship was about to change hands, U.S. reporters in the back row smirked and giggled. I know. I was a smirker.

--The 1969 New York Mets. They were a joke, too, until they won the World Series.

But for me, it's still Mills.

Late in Mills' year, 1964, the Associated Press polled sports editors on the year's top upset. Mills won, beating out USC's 20-17 victory over No. 1 Notre Dame and Muhammad Ali's upset of Sonny Liston.

The story of Mills, a seven-sixteenths Sioux, now as well as then, seems not improbable but impossible.

Consider:

--Before he won the gold medal, Mills had run five 10,000-meter races. He had won none, and in two failed to break half an hour.

--In the entire pre-Olympic track season in 1964, he didn't win a race of any kind. In Camp Pendleton dual meets, Mills was a Saturday also-ran in mile and two-mile races.

--Before the Tokyo Olympics, Track & Field News had a panel of six experts handicap each event. Not one picked Mills to finish in the top six in the 10,000 meters.

--Immediately after the race, favored Ron Clarke of Australia, who finished third, was asked if he had worried about Mills beforehand.

"Worried about him?" he snapped. "I never heard of him."

--After the race, a confused Japanese race official ran up to Mills and said, "Excuse me, but what is your name?"

The more Americans learned about Billy Mills, the more they liked his story.

As a child, he lived in a world of alcoholism and despair on a Sioux reservation in Pine Ridge, S.D. Orphaned at 13, Mills was shipped off to a Kansas Indian school, Haskell Institute.

He became a long distance runner, won some high school races, and was awarded a track scholarship to the University of Kansas. His collegiate career was largely undistinguished, but he did win the Big Eight mile and two-mile championships one year.

He married a KU student, Pat Harris, and quit running. But she talked him into resuming his track career in 1963. He enlisted in the Marines, eventually becoming a motor pool officer at Camp Pendleton.

There, under 70-year-old Coach Earl Thomson, Mills joined a talented Pendleton track team, one that competed in dual meets against the likes of USC and Arizona State.

"What a lot of people didn't know then was that in early '64, I was doing a lot of marathon work in the hills on the base, with a marathoner, Alex Breckenridge," Mills said. "We'd do 20- and 25-mile runs, up and down hills. I was really building up my body for the '64 Olympic trials."

No one knew, of course, because no one had reason to ask.

"I knew all along that I had enough speed to win a gold medal at an Olympic distance race," he said. "I felt all along if I could just stay with the leaders in a race, I could beat anybody on the last lap.

"I've been saying this for 30 years and no one's believed me yet, but I went to Tokyo that year fully confident I could win, if I was close to the leaders at the finish."

Many were surprised at the 1964 Olympic trials that the virtually unknown Mills made the team in the 10,000, as well as the marathon. Yet even at the trials, he was overshadowed.

The track hero that summer was a 5-foot-5 teen-ager, Gerry Lindgren, who had upset two veteran Soviet Union runners earlier at a USA-USSR meet at the Coliseum.

Mills was a distant second to Lindgren at the trials 10,000, and quietly made the Olympic team. For that, he got his first headline in the Oceanside Blade-Tribune. Then he packed his bag for Tokyo. He also borrowed money from friends for a ticket for Pat, so confident was he that he would win.

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