This column appears on the JAPAN Forward website.

By Ed Odeven

A dream can transform a life, giving it purpose.

Billy Mills is living proof.

The latest episode of American Voices with Senator Bill Bradley, a long-running SiriusXM satellite radio program, introduces (or reintroduces) Mills’ amazing story.

Compressed to about 20 minutes, Mills’ life and life mission are highlighted on Bradley’s show which is posted on Soundcloud and Facebook.

Listening to the show is time well spent.

Decades after winning gold medals at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Bradley and Mills remain prominent figures. They are sports legends with wholesome reputations who have lived active, meaningful lives.

Within a 10-day period in October 1964, Bradley, the captain of the U.S men’s basketball team, and Mills, the unlikely 10,000-meter track champion, collected their medals. 

Mills, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, shocked the world on October 14, winning the race in an Olympic-record time of 28 minutes, 24.4 seconds.

Then, on October 23, Bradley scored 10 points in Team USA’s 73-59 victory over the Soviet Union in the men’s basketball final. 

Bradley deftly introduced Mills’ life before and after that race, as well as compelling details from his run into the history books. He didn’t probe like a prosecutor. Instead, his natural curiosity and intellect illuminate the conversation with sharp, focused questions.

Mills seemed to appreciate the opportunity. Over the years, he’s been profiled countless times by newspapers and magazines and TV and radio programs, but he always provides detailed answers, not canned responses, about how a dream transformed his life. What’s more, the movie “Running Brave,” based on his life, was released in 1983. Robby Benson played Mills.

If this were a normal year, their compelling conversation could’ve been broadcast during the original timeframe of the 2020 Tokyo Games. But the COVID-19 pandemic pushed back plans for the Tokyo Olympics until next year. Mills’ life illustrates the power of the Olympic spirit to inspire people, pushing them to make positive contributions to society. It’s a reminder that beyond the contemporary commercialization of the Olympics exists a real societal and global benefit to competition.

In the segment’s introduction, which highlighted Mills’ triumph in the 10,000, Bradley said, “You just made everybody on the team proud.”

Archival audio footage is included, capturing the end of the epic upset as Mills staged a late rally to pull ahead of Tunisia’s Mohammed Gammoudi and hold off the favorite, Ron Clarke of Australia. Mills sprinted to the finish line to edge Gammoudi (28:24.8) and outsprint Clarke (28:25.8).

Highlights of the men’s 10,000 meters at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics are on YouTube

But before that, Bradley, now 77, prefaced the dramatic finish with a description of what had already unfolded:

“The announcers weren’t even focused on him,” Bradley pointed out, “and all of a sudden he was close to the lead, but then he was pushed back by another runner, actually twice. And now Billy Mills was (in) fourth place, and then he started running even faster.”

Then the dramatic audio footage of the race was played.

“Billy Mills, Billy Mills, pouring on the steam,” the announcer reported. “Billy Mills is really putting it on. Billy Mills has the lead for the United States heading toward the finish line. Billy Mills has just broken the tape.”

Speaking to Mills, Bradley shared his memory of that day long ago.

“I remember the other Olympians were watching it on television,” said Bradley, who played for the NBA’s New York Knicks (1967-77, two championships), served in the U.S. Senate (1979-97, representing New Jersey), and ran for president as a Democrat in 2000. “We couldn’t believe it. He came from behind. Who? Billy Mills. That’s incredible.”

Mills laughed.

“When you actually finished, people looked at that,” Bradley said. “They were so inspired with (sprinter) Bob Hayes or somebody else that was supposed to get a gold medal and that was one thing, but you showed the underdog coming back and your own personal story, and you just made everybody on the team proud.”

Mills’ inspirational story

Mills grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. When he was 8 years old, his mother passed away. It was a time of profound sadness in his life.

To this day, Mills remembers what his father told him after his mother died, attempting to inspire and help him.

“My dad just simply said, ‘Son, you have broken wings, and it takes a dream to heal broken wings. Your soul is broken,’ ” Mills told Bradley.

“Why would he say you have broken wings?” the former senator asked.

“He knew that I was broken with the loss of my mother,” Mills confessed, who went on to describe the economic poverty on American Indian reservations, which leads to what he described as “the most devastating poverty of all, a poverty of dreams.”

Mills, now 82, can still hear his father’s voice, and he shared his father’s inspiring words on the program.

“He would say if you pursue a dream, son, it takes you down a path, and a path leads to a passion,” Mills recalled his father saying. “You find your passion. You develop the skills to equal the passion. You bring them together. What happens?

“And I’m just a little boy not knowing what to say, and I said, ‘Daddy, I don’t know.’”

After clapping his hands, Mills’ father would say: “Magic happens, son. I want you to create the magic. And then over your lifetime, one or two of the magical things you do just might be looked upon as a miracle, son.”

Those words made a profound impact on Mills’ life.

“So I was believing in magic, I was believing in miracles.”

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