Article By Nathaniel Hancock
“The ultimate is not to win, but to reach within the depths of your capabilities and to compete against yourself to the greatest extent possible. When you have that, you have dignity. You have the pride. You can walk about with character and pride no matter in what place you happen to finish. – Billy Mills, 1964 10k Olympic Gold Medalist
No one predicted that William Mervin Mills would win the gold medal in the 10,000 meter run of the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. A member of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux Tribe) from South Dakota, Billy was a United States Marine who attended the University of Kansas on an athletic scholarship for his considerable running abilities. Billy faced poverty as a youth, was orphaned at age twelve, and experienced repeated racial prejudice that led to suicidal thoughts. On top of it all, Billy had hypoglycemia, which affected his performance on the track. No one predicted Billy would win in Tokyo — no one, that is, but Billy.
Given the internal trauma Billy was dealing with due to racism and other life challenges, he later described the 1964 Olympic 10k as two distinct races:
“The first was to heal the broken soul. And in the process, I won an Olympic gold medal.”
Let this sink in: Mills won the 10k in Tokyo by beating his previous personal best by nearly 50 seconds. In so doing, he set an Olympic record and became the only American to win gold in this discipline, a feat that holds true nearly 60 years later. Mills’ achievement is difficult to comprehend for anyone who has participated in long-distance running. Improving on personal bests by five or ten seconds after many years of high-level competition is a tremendous accomplishment; bettering one’s personal record over 6.2 miles by almost 50 seconds — on the biggest stage in worldwide sport — is simply unthinkable.
Billy went on to found Running Strong for American Indian Youth with Eugene Krizak in 1986 to promote wellness in Native American communities. For his tireless humanitarian efforts, Mills was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Barack Obama in 2012.
Billy’s story in general and his 10k finish in particular are sources of inspiration for me, a distance runner-turned-powerlifter. In addition to an oversized “Persist Powerlifting” metal logo, the back wall of my home gym is adorned with a poster of Billy Mills at the 10k finish line in Tokyo. The poster features Mills’ famous quote: “Every passion has its destiny.” Having grown up distance racing, Billy’s quote and his mental fortitude in the face of adversity have stuck with me for decades as I’ve competed at the national levels in both bodybuilding and powerlifting.
I draw three primary life lessons from Billy Mills’ story:
- Resilience is a skill
- Pain has a purpose
- Self-belief is critical
When I watch replays on YouTube of Billy’s incredible athletic feat from 1964, I think about these three lessons from my Lakota role model. Each merits a closer look.
Resilience Is A Skill
Many talk about resilience as a trait that some have and others do not, as if fate or blind luck determine our ability to bounce back from hardship. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. I believe we all have the opportunity to significantly enhance our resilience via specific, targeted, and sometimes strenuous training.
What the road, trails, and track were to me during my distance running years, the gym now represents — a laboratory. ‘Lab’ is defined as follows:
“A room or building equipped for scientific experiments, research, or teaching, or for the manufacture of drugs or chemicals.” (Oxford Languages)
Every facet of this definition applies to the way I use the gym in my life. For me, weight training enables me to conduct experiments of sorts on just how much I can physically (and, to some extent, psychologically) handle; it is a far cry from the casual exercise routines embraced by the masses. I research the science behind the physiological responses to various training protocols, and I enlist the assistance of an expert coach to lay out my individualized training regimens, week after week. Furthermore, I allow my experience training with weights to teach me — not just regarding my body’s response to the stimulus of the load and total volume of work, but also in terms of perceptions of my own potential and my limits both in and out of the gym.
The gym is literally a lab for me, and it can be one for you, too. It is a separate space where I go regularly (four times per week for 2-hour sessions, in my case) to temporarily remove myself from the stresses of life and to control the variables of my training “experiments.” Invariably, my body “manufacture[s] drugs or chemicals” by way of endorphins that simultaneously free my mind and raise my spirits. But more powerful than the natural release of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine are the positive feedback loops that I create as I (1) leverage positive self-talk while I train, and (2) witness goal after goal achieved and “limit” after “limit” broken. I think of people like Billy Mills when I train — positive influences who choose to disregard the negative chatter of the naysayers all around them as they propel themselves into the history books.
Pain Has A Purpose
Every human has a unique set of challenges and struggles in this life. I do not claim to fully grasp what Billy Mills experienced in his youth and university years as he encountered prejudice, discrimination, poverty, and loneliness. That said, I do understand pain and adversity. My trials are different in nature than Mr. Mills, but they have nonetheless impacted me in deep ways. I have come to embrace as true the oft-repeated adage, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” (attributed to Ian Maclaren).
Ultra-marathoner Dean Karnazes stated the following:
“We have killed our souls with comfort instead of seeking fulfillment and achievement.”
There is much truth to this statement, as an avoidance of pain and discomfort invariably leads to a failure to emerge from our comfort zones in order to realize our true potential. What are the most fulfilling experiences of our short lives? Are they to be found relaxing on a beach in the Bahamas or sipping hot cocoa in a Swiss mountain cabin? From my vantage point, while vacationing in breathtaking spots can indeed lift the soul, it cannot compare to the deep satisfaction of an undertaking that requires digging deep for months or even years of your life. This is a truth that Billy understood at a deep level.
Singer (and fellow lifter) Henry Rollins said the following about emerging from a life of mediocrity:
“The average is the borderline that keeps mere men in their place. Those who step over the line are heroes by the very act. Go.”
Embracing the discomfort (and sometimes downright pain) of hardcore training shapes the individual who subjects herself to the not-always-comfortable lifestyle. Our capacity grows even as our fears of facing difficult challenges fade further into the backdrop of our lives. Instead of clinging to a safe, convenient, complacent existence, we opt for the road less traveled — a path marked by self-inflicted hardships, yes, but also by a more accurate acceptance of who we really are and what our tremendous potential truly is. Purposeful pain yields dividends that rival even the most lucrative stock options du jour.
Self-Belief Is Critical
No one in Tokyo (or anywhere else, for that matter) was talking about Billy Mills as the potential victor of the 1964 Olympic 10k. What basis did they have for believing that this relative unknown had a shot against the likes of Australian Ron Clarke (the world record holder at the time) and Russian Pyotr Bolotnikov (the 1960 Olympic 10k gold medalist), both of whom had raced that distance significantly faster than Mills’ personal best? But Billy believed in himself, and in the end, that belief was the force behind one of the most incredible performances in the history of sport.
Now, I am not saying that believing in oneself will inevitably lead to victory; we all know that this is not the case in all kinds of circumstances. But the opposite almost always holds true: if we fail to believe, we will not achieve.
Author Barrie Davenport shared the following regarding self-confidence:
“Low self-confidence isn’t a life sentence. Self-confidence can be learned, practiced, and mastered — just like any other skill. Once you master it, everything in your life will change for the better.”
Billy Mills used running to enhance his resilience and self-confidence. I believe training and competitive racing were critical tools that enabled him to “heal the broken soul,” which undoubtedly meant more to him even than attaining the pinnacle of athletic achievement, an Olympic gold medal.
Lighting The Fire Within
February 2002 was one of the most memorable months of my life. I served as a volunteer interpreter for the French Ski Team throughout the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and had the incredible honor of skiing with the Olympians at Snowbasin Resort in Utah. (Thanks to France’s Carole Montillet, who won the women’s Downhill that year, I even had the privilege of wearing a gold medal!) The motto for the 2002 Olympics will forever be etched in my mind: “Light the Fire Within.”
Whether or not you are up against “two races” as Billy Mills was — healing a broken soul and pursuing your athletic dreams — the three Lakota lessons listed above can serve to buoy you up in difficult times and help you catch a glimpse of never before seen vistas in this life. Strategizing to bolster your personal resilience, embracing the truth that some degree of purposeful pain can actually be your friend, and choosing to constantly deflect negative thoughts about your worth or potential will work together to transform both your self-vision and the scope of your personal accomplishments. Beyond this, coming to a clear realization of your increased possibilities will help you feel empowered to do more for others you encounter along life’s path. In this way, when the fire within you burns brightly, it will become easier and more natural to lend your flame to uplift those around you who may have dying embers of various degrees hidden deep within.
This year has shown the world just how important resilience is. Like Billy Mills, we can consciously elect to push both mind and body to overcome barriers and increase self-belief. In so doing, our tendencies towards hesitation and trepidation will evolve into determination and inspiration. Best of all, as Billy highlighted, “You can walk about with character and pride no matter in what place you happen to finish.” And that, my friends, is worth more than any medal.