Billy Mills poked at a healthy plate of poached eggs, grilled vegetables and dry toasted rye Friday morning. The distance-running legend has neither the knees nor the appetite to compete in the 30th annual Marine Corps Marathon tomorrow, so you wonder if the old sage has finally left the finishing kick to the young bucks.
"Nah, getting ready for Beijing," Mills said, laughing. "Hey, if no one comes around in the 10K, I'll be there."
Forty-one summers ago, Mills stunned the world at the 1964 Tokyo Games -- becoming the first American to win the 10,000 meters and the last Native American to win Olympic gold. At 67, the pride of the Oglala Lakota Sioux nation is sitting in a downtown Washington hotel, still teetering between two worlds.
On one side are his ancestors.
In a ceremony at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian today, Mills will honor members of Running Strong for American Indian Youth, the nonprofit organization for whom he is national spokesman. Running Strong comprises six American Indians and 22 non-Natives from across North America and helps communities with self-sufficiency programs, youth activities and cultural identity projects.
On the other side is the country Mills proudly served.
Last night, the former Marine lieutenant was invited to a special military reception, where Mills planned to meet a veteran who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm honored to be a part of something like that," Mills said. "On the other hand, though, it's hard to reconcile the two sides. Because, do you know the most Congressional Medal of Honors given out for one 'battle?'
"Wounded Knee," he said, referring to the 1890 massacre near the South Dakota reservation where he was orphaned at 12. "They gave 21 or 23 -- I can't remember for a slaughter of 350 people.
"I'm proud of my country and proud to be an American citizen, but I still see the imbalance. You see it all over."
Mills's Lakota name is Makata Taka Hela. Loosely translated, it means "love your country." Despite his misgivings about the U.S. government's treatment of his people, he has.
His commission ended two weeks before much of his unit was sent to Vietnam. He lost a nephew and his former college roommate at Kansas -- Cliff Kushman, an Air Force captain who was shot down in 1966 -- to war. Kushman was a silver medalist in the intermediate hurdles at the 1960 Rome Games. Guilt-ridden he was not sent abroad himself, Mills was eventually denied a request to have his duty extended.
"The general said, 'You were a peace-time hero, you've done your duty,' " Mills recalled. " 'You don't want to end up a Cold War S.O.B. like the rest of us.' "
He sold insurance, moved to Sacramento with his family, became a motivational speaker and in 1983 had a movie made about his life -- "Running Brave," the "Rudy" of its day, starring Robby Benson. Mills also kept using his legend as leverage to help his people.
He was one of the first nationally known Indian figures to speak out about the use of Native mascots and images by sports teams in 1972 as the University of Oklahoma was being pressured to retire its "Little Red" Indian mascot. "I'm not a sports team mascot," he said at the time. "I'm a Lakota. These images damage our self-esteem."
Long before Joe Gibbs's tenure in Washington, George Allen had Mills speak to his players in the mid-1970s, along with the Russian weightlifting icon Vasily Alexeyev. "He knew he couldn't change the team name because of the owner [Jack Kent Cooke], but he asked me how he could help. He came up with a scholarship honoring Native Americans. I think it only lasted a year, but George Allen was a good man. He understood."
Last year, in recognition of the 40th anniversary of his victory in Tokyo, Mills was named the Marine Corps Marathon's official starter. With track and field becoming what it is now in America -- a niche sport creating disposable heroes every four years -- few who ran the event knew the scope of Mills's story.
How a virtual unknown from South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation caught and passed the world's two greatest distance runners at the time, Australia's Ron Clarke and Tunisia's Mohammad Gammoudi, in the final 100 meters. A poster of Mills breaking the tape hangs on the wall behind the register at the Georgetown Running Company. He is the only American to win the event.
Mills would go on to run against Kip Keino, the legendary Kenyan. Yet when the French magazine L'Equipe asked Mills years ago who was his toughest competitor, he remarked, "Ted Lewis."
"Who?" he was asked. "What nation is he from?"
"The Mohawk nation."
Ted Lewis is the late father of Kathy Lewis, who runs tomorrow in her dad's memory because Billy Mills asked her to run. "He always beat me in high school," Mills said of Lewis. "He had a great stride. I thought it would be nice if his daughter ran."
Adam Bad Wound, a 24-year-old PhD candidate at Stanford, is running his second Marine Corps Marathon under the American Indian Youth banner. He worked at a law firm in New York over the summer and hails from the same tribe as Mills.
"All you hear about is all those Native kids who go back to the reservation, become alcoholics and get their girlfriend pregnant," Mills said. "Those aren't all our stories. There are many others like his. There always have been."
Indeed, when Adam Bad Wound crosses the starting line tomorrow the symmetry will be perfect:
Forty-one years later, another courageous Lakota, running strong.