“Look at Mills! Look at Mills!!!”
— NBC analyst Dick Bank’s dramatic call of Billy Mills’s gold-medal kick on Oct. 14, 1964.
When he heard the man who sprinted by him in the final 30 meters of the 10,000-meter final in Tokyo 50 years ago was being feted in Washington, Mohammed Gammoudi did the only thing he felt appropriate:
He had a flight booked from his native Tunisia.
“It was important to be here for me — because of who Billy Mills is and what he means now as a friend,” Gammoudi said.
“If I think about the race now, I don’t see him as beating me. He won the race. It was as if he was shot from an arrow — past me, past the world record holder Ron Clarke and right into history.”
Fluent in French and Arabic, Gammoudi used his daughter to translate as he stood on the bottom floor of an opulent Alexandria home on a lake next door to George Allen Jr. late Saturday afternoon.
The two aging Olympians, now both 76, embraced after their second meeting since 1964.
Longtime U.S. Rep. James Moran (D-Va.) was among those who congratulated Mills for what he had done that day, Oct. 14 in Tokyo, and even more for what he became afterward — the embodiment of a man who used his one glorious moment in time as not a means to an end but rather as a tool for the greater good.
“I had a dream. You had a dream,” said Gene Krizek, 86. The founder of Christian Relief Services, who partnered with Mills almost 30 years ago to create a charity called Running Strong for American Indian Youth, then added, “We put our dreams together and look what happened.”
Indeed, look at Mills. Look at William Mervin Mills.
Running Strong has raised millions, constructed youth centers and three Native-owned dialysis clinics, drilled nearly 500 wells, grown sustainable gardens and initiated Native language-preservation programs.
There is an even a campy movie starring Robbie Benson called “Running Brave” from 1983 about Mills’s life, but it hardly does reality justice.
If you Google nothing else today, call up the two-minute YouTube footage, in grainy black and white, from 1964. His name or “Look at Mills” should do the trick.
Mills was not in the picture with about 50 meters to go. He had fallen to third after Clarke, of Australia, and Gammoudi had pushed past the young Marine from the Pine Ridge Reservation, the unknown Lakota who was orphaned at 12 and sent to boarding school in Kansas.
Then came the sprint from nowhere, the arrow shot from the heavens, as Gammoudi said.
Running Times magazine named it the second-greatest distance race of all time. The late Olympian documentarian Bud Greenspan named it one of the Games’s greatest moments, two notches behind “Miracle on Ice.”
“When I see the video today, I just feel as if it was a gift that was given to me,” Mills said earlier Saturday at the National Museum of the American Indian. He was honoring the annual crop of Running Strong charity runners who would compete in the Marine Corps Marathon and 10K the next day. Mills will be honored at the Anti-Defamation League’s 2014 Concert Against Hate on Monday night at the Kennedy Center.
“My win was special. But that you are running for water on reservations and a better life for American Indian children and families tomorrow is humbling to me.”
The day ended when his wife of 50 years, Patricia the artist, unveiled her third original mural of her husband. Everyone clapped, the cameras clicked and everyone spoke about how, with everything seemingly going wrong in the world today, this moment seemed so right and perfect.
“A Lakota boy, winning the gold medal from little Pine Ridge — it still gives me goose pimples,” said former Oglala tribal chairman Joe American Horse, who came from South Dakota to bless the honoring ceremony and later the invocation in full Lakota headdress and tribal attire.
Most folks that attended didn’t know Joe American Horse also was a great runner in his youth. Once clocking 4 minutes 13 seconds in the mile, he competed against Mills in high school and at Nebraska, where Billy beat him in cross-country at Kansas. “I think I’m Joe Yellow Horse in the movie,” he quipped.
“But I left college early, dropped out, came back home, drank, had to get a job doing custodial work. Yes, I found my purpose. But a part of me really wanted to be Billy Mills. I’m just so glad one of us could do it. He had such a great kick.”
Gammoudi remembers it well. The Tunisian, who went on to compete in four Olympics and win medals of all colors, had told Mills a year earlier at an international military competition what was needed for him to succeed in Tokyo.
Getting another runner to translate in 1963, the message was conveyed: “More speed. You need to work on speed.”
“Yes, this is right,” Gammoudi’s daughter said, running the translation by her father.
After Mills stunned him and Clarke in Tokyo in those final, frantic 30 meters, Gammoudi congratulated him and had another message for the unknown from Pine Ridge.
“Too much speed,” he said.
The gold and silver medalists that day laughed at the memory. They hugged again, talked about the lives bettered because of their race and thanked everyone for coming.
Fifty years later, it was clear they had still managed to save their best for the stretch.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.