Follow Your Dreams


The night before important cross-country meets my college coach would show us a short documentary about 1964 Olympian Billy Mills.  Billy, a Sioux Indian who grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, was an unknown underdog at the Olympics in Tokyo, but won the 10,000 meters in a time that was 50 seconds faster than his personal best.  His win is still considered one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history.

One can’t help be inspired to dream big after watching the footage of Billy surpassing his best time by almost a minute.  The footage of the race gave me goose bumps and tears in my eyes no matter how many times I watched it.  Billy passes two runners in the last 30 meters and the sports commentators go wild, shouting “Look at Mills, look at Mills.”  He remains the first and only American to ever win a gold medal in the 10,000 meters.

The video was the ultimate motivation the night before a big race and my coach knew it.  My teammates and I kept Billy’s mantra in our heads while we raced the next day: “Follow your dreams.”

I had the pleasure of seeing Billy Mills speak at a recent luncheon in Fredericksburg, Virginia during the Road Runners Club of America convention a couple of weeks ago.  Now in his 70s, Billy is a gentle and compassionate man.  He has devoted his life to inspiring others through motivational speeches and raising money for the less fortunate, raising $650 million so far.  Billy is also the National Spokesperson for Running Strong for American Indian Youth.

Billy’s mother died when he was 12 and he was raised by his grandmother.  After his mother died, Billy’s father told him to use his eagle wings when facing adversity.  Billy got a running scholarship to the University of Kansas where he was named an NCAA All-American cross-country runner three times.  Even though he earned those titles, he remembers being asked to step out of the photographs of the All-American athletes because he was Native American.

Upon graduating Billy joined the marines and continued running while serving.  His hard work paid off when he placed 2nd in the U. S. Olympic trials and qualified to run the 10,000 meters in the 1964 Olympics.  On the bus to the race, Billy sat down next to a pretty girl, she asked him which event he was competing in and when he told her she asked, “Who do you think will win?” Billy said “me.”

Halfway through the race, Billy had run the fastest three miles of his life.  He was at the front of the pack with four other runners, including Ron Clarke of Australia who was favored to win.  Billy wondered how he would keep up the pace.  He told himself that he would just run a mile or two more and then drop out.  Billy stuck with Clarke and Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia with only two laps to go, while the other runners dropped back.  Everyone expected Clarke to win at that point. His personal best was over one minute faster than Billy’s.

With a final lap to go the three runners started lapping other runners and Clarke got boxed in.  He pushed Billy twice; then Gammoudi pushed both of them and surged ahead in the final curve.  Billy dropped into third place and Clarke chased Gammoudi.   Billy didn’t seem to have a chance, but he remembers thinking if I don’t do this now I may never have a chance to win a gold medal.  At that moment, Billy remembers seeing an eagle on the back of Gammoudi’s jersey.  He remembers his father’s advice to have eagle wings and follow his dreams.  He pulled into the third lane and sprinted past the other two runners to win the race in a time of 28.24.4.

Billy had his hands in the air, celebrating his win. A Japanese reporter asked him, “Who are you?” and Billy began doubting himself and asked “Did I miss a lap?” He looked over at Gammoudi and didn’t see the eagle on his jersey anymore.

At the luncheon in Virginia, Billy showed us the footage of his win.  I hadn’t watched it in almost 15 years, but it still gave me goose bumps and tears in my eyes.  It also made me remember the excitement and butterflies I used to feel the evening before a big race when anything was possible.

Even though my college cross-country days are over and I will never be a good enough runner to compete professionally or in the Olympics, Billy’s story has inspired me to dream big in other aspects of my life.  Anything is possible.

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Eva Dunn-Froebig is the executive director of Run Wild Missoula and has been running since the seventh grade. She moved to Missoula 12 years ago from upstate New York to attend the University of Montana’s Journalism School graduate program. Eva never dreamed that she would have a running-related job and feels lucky to be a participant in Missoula’s vibrant running community.