NOTE – Just over one year ago, with the world embroiled in the midst of plenty of uncertainty, the sports world took a massive hit with the postponement of the 2020 Olympic Games. While many other sports were affected, none had the far-reaching impact of the Games being delayed as athletes from all over the world saw the end of many lifelong dreams and the delay of many others from becoming a reality.
Now, with those Games back on the schedule and just over 30 days from getting underway in Tokyo, I have been reminded of an interview I had nearly a decade ago with legendary Olympian Billy Mills when he spoke at a gathering in my home state of North Dakota.
I became aware of Mills’ exploits long after his legend as a runner was cemented. What I was not aware of was the depth of his character.
After listening to Mills’ speech and then visiting with him for more than an hour afterward, I realized that for the third time in my life as a sports journalist that I was in the presence of greatness.
The first time I had that realization came in 1997 at the Big Ten Conference wrestling tournament in Minneapolis and interviewed then-Iowa coach Dan Gable. A few years later I was invited to a luncheon in North Dakota to listen to legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.
In Mills I found a man grounded in kindness and humanity. A man who had overcome obstacles and challenges as a youngster and only went on to become an American treasure.
He was not done.
Mills, through his charity work, has become a world treasure in the way he made the lives of countless individuals better.
The other thing that was evident in talking with Mills was his humility. Not once during our lengthy conversation did he ever put the focus on himself. Instead, he was quick to point out the lessons learned from others, including Cliff Cushman.
I never got a chance to meet Cushman, but I did come across the letter he had written after tripping over a hurdle at the 1964 Olympic Trials and failing to qualify for the Olympics for a second time.
I first read Cushman’s letter while a middle school student and learning about track and field. Now, nearly 50 years later I remain convinced Cushman’s inspirational letter is the greatest thing I have ever read this side of the Bible.
With the start of the Olympic Games rapidly approaching, I wanted to share my (slightly updated) story about Mills and also share Cushman’s letter.
It is my hope that one or both can provide a bit of inspiration to everyone who reads them … in a time everyone can use some inspiration.
Mills Runs to Olympic Stardom
FORT TOTTEN, N.D. — Standing atop the podium at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo Billy Mills’ mind was filled with emotions as he listened to the playing of the national anthem.
He had just conquered the competition and became the first American to win the 10,000 meters at the Olympics — something that no American has been able to duplicate since that memorable day in the Land of the Rising Sun nearly 60 years ago.
He overcame a stumble and a box created late in the race by some of the others dreaming of Olympic gold and glory and with long strides charged through the final 100 meters to win in a blaze of glory.
He beamed with pride as amid plenty of pomp and circumstance the gold medal was draped around his neck.
He was indeed caught up in the moment.
“That moment was very special,” Mills said, “I felt I had wings on my feet … wings of an eagle.”
But, more important than the moment at hand was the past and the voice he was hearing atop the podium from seemingly more than a world away.
From his roots on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota Mills was hearing the voice of his father telling him that it was now time for Mills to “step out of the circle.”
That was just one of the stories the Olympic icon shared as he took part in dedication ceremonies on a 2011 expansion project at Cankdeska Cinkana Community College in North Dakota.
Mills, whose Olympic triumph was voted as the No. 2 Olympic moment of all time, told of the time as a youngster on the plains of South Dakota when his father told him to stand in a circle, close his eyes and to look at himself from inside and to learn … to find himself … and to dream.
“My father always taught me that we need to learn about ourselves and then to give back,” Mills said.
He is doing just that. The now 82-year-old Mills is the founder and director of Running Strong for American Indian Youth. That organization helps support projects that benefit Native American people, especially youth programs. It is also involved in a number of causes and has raised more than $50 million since its founding and has assisted a variety of programs across the world.
That’s all keeping with the values he learned in South Dakota at an early age. Values he stressed at that 2011 gathering and likened them to his success as one of the top distance runners America has ever produced.
Mills became familiar with the works of Socrates as a youngster growing up without many material possessions. He said he read his first book about the Olympics as a nine-year-old shortly after the death of his mother.
“I read a lot of Greek mythology,” Mills said. “It told me that Olympians were chosen by the gods. It taught me about strength and virtues and values.” He added that one of his earliest lessons came from the famed philosopher.
“Success comes in the journey as we strive to achieve a goal that we have set for ourselves,” said Mills, who estimates he ran more than 63,000 miles in his career before achieving Olympic stardom, “it was not winning on that track that has empowered me.
“With achievement comes honor,” Mills added, as he continued to quote Socrates, “with honor comes responsibility and with responsibility comes accountability.”
Mills believes his responsibility and accountability is in creating a better life for Native Americans and for all people across the world. He said he has traveled to more than 100 countries and has seen that peoples from all over the world face the same sorts of challenges on a daily basis.
“We all have to make decisions,” Mills said. “Some of those decisions we make are good and some are bad.”
He also cautioned against three evils: hate, anger and self-pity, “those three things can destroy us,” Mills added.
Mills knows all about decisions. It was one he made in 1959 after finishing fifth at the NCAA national cross-country championship meet while competing for the University of Kansas, following his graduation from Haskell Institute just across town in Lawrence, Kansas that allowed history to be made five years later.
There, on a window ledge at a hotel above East Lansing, Mich., Mills told Saturday’s audience that his hands gripped the window frame as he teetered while contemplating suicide.
It was not so much that he had come in fifth, something he had done the previous year at the national meet after winning the individual title at the Big 8 Conference meet as a sophomore (freshmen were ineligible to compete at the varsity level at the time), but because of the snub he was given following his performance as he finished 33 seconds behind Houston’s Al Lawrence, who won the meet in 20:35.70.
By finishing among the top five Mills should have been recognized as an all-American in cross country both seasons. Instead, when photos were taken of those runners achieving that lofty recognition, Mills was asked to remain out of the picture for a second straight year as his dark skin portrayed him as a foreigner, who were not eligible for the all-America distinction.
“The greatest challenge we all face are perceptions,” Mills said Saturday.
But, instead of allowing the ill-conceived perception of some misguided photographer to derail him, Mills returned to Kansas and continued in building his legacy. A legacy that was helped in large part to his roommate at KU, one the nation’s premier collegiate programs at the time.
Cliff Cushman, a graduate of Grand Forks Central and the North Dakota Prep Athlete of the Year in 1956, was a captain of the Jayhawk track team and the two developed a deep bond.
So deep was the bond with the North Dakota legend that Mills said: “He was the first white man that I put my complete trust in.”
The two trained together and put on plenty of miles, miles that would eventually lead both to Olympic glory. Mills watched at home as Cushman finished with a silver medal in the 1960 Games in Rome after Mills finished fourth in the Trials that year.
Mills, who placed fifth at the NCAA cross country meet for a third time just months following the 1960 Games, said that he used to stroke Cushman’s U-S-A jersey when the North Dakota legend was gone from the apartment they shared in the tiny college town of Lawrence and one day dreamed of wearing one of his own.
His chance came four years later, but without his close friend to share in the moment. Cushman had tripped over a hurdle during the Trials in Los Angeles and came up short in his attempt to make the Olympic team for a second time.
The letter Cushman wrote to the Grand Forks Herald in which he urged people in his hometown to set goals and go about achieving them is the stuff of legends.
Mills spoke of a bus ride he made to the race in Tokyo on the day of his historic feat. He sat next to a female Olympian from a European country. When he told her he was competing in the 10,000 that day, the woman asked Mills who he thought would win the race. A question that silenced Mills.
His answer would come later in the day for all the world.
Mills shot past Australian Ron Clarke, the defending world champion, and Tunisia’s Mohammed Gammoudi as he turned Lane 4 into his own highlight show. Mills, who finished second at the Trials, was clocked in 28:24.1 in Tokyo and bettered his previous personal best mark by more than 50 seconds as more than 80,000 fans watched in disbelief as an American won the event for the first time.
He said as he passed one of the runners he had lapped in the race, he saw an eagle on the opponent’s jersey.
It turned out he didn’t. He now believes it was the eagle he saw of his youth.
He admitted as the grueling race worked its way out he had plenty of other thoughts run through his mind. He remembered being left out of fraternities while at Kansas because of perceptions of the times. He said he thought of quitting the race.
As in his youth following the death of his mother, and later, his father, Mills persevered.
His accomplishment ranks behind only that of Emil Zatopek at the 1952 Games as Zatopek surpassed Paavo Nurmi as the king of distance running, by winning the marathon just days after triumphing in the 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters in London — a feat that is likely to go unmatched.
Mills does not try to hide the smile that permeates his face when speaking of his former roommate. He said Cushman’s letter, written on a plane just hours after his unfortunate fall, was not the only piece of writing penned that indicated the depth of Cushman, who watched as Mills joined the former Jayhawk as Olympic greats.
“(Cushman) sent me a letter after the 1964 Games and told me how proud he was of me,” Mills recalled, “but, he added that he was more proud of where I had come from than of the fact that I had won.
“That showed the quality of the man Cliff Cushman was,” added Mills, who succeeded Cushman as captain of the Jayhawks following his graduation from Kansas. “He was so genuine and so sincere … he understood the concept of success coming from the journey.”
A journey for Mills that began in South Dakota and is forever etched in history.
Cliff Cushman’s Legacy
Note ~ Cliff Cushman was a man of vision. He was not worried about what could have been, but instead, concerned with what could be. Cushman graduated from Grand Forks Central High School in 1956 and was named the North Dakota High School Athlete of the Year. He went on to compete as a hurdler at the University of Kansas and captured a silver medal at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. His dream of making a second Olympic Team fell short in 1964 when he tripped over a hurdle at the Olympic Trials. This letter, written on a plane just hours after the unfortunate fall, has always been an inspiration to me and to countless others.
“Don’t feel sorry for me. I feel sorry for some of you! You watched me hit the fifth hurdle, fall and lie on the track in an inglorious heap of skinned elbows, bruised hips, torn knees and injured pride, unsuccessful in my attempt to make the Olympic team a second time. In a split second all the many years of training, pain, sweat, blisters and agony of running were simply and irrevocably wiped out. But I tried! I would much rather fall knowing I had put forth an honest effort than never to have tried at all.
“This is not to say everyone is capable of making the Olympic team. However, each of you are capable of trying to make your own ‘Olympic team,’ whether it be the high school football team, the glee club, the honor roll or whatever your goal may be. Unless your reach exceeds your grasp, how can you be sure what you can attain? And don’t you think there are things better than cigarettes, hot rod cars, school dropouts, excessive makeup and ducktail grease-cuts?
“Over 15 years ago I saw a star – first place in the Olympic Games. I literally started to run after it. In 1960, I came within three yards of grabbing it; this year I stumbled, fell and watched it recede four more years away. Certainly, I was very disappointed in falling flat on my face. However, there is nothing I can do about it now but get up, pick the cinders from my wounds and take one step followed by one more, until the steps turn into the miles and miles into success.
“I know I may never make it. The odds are against me, but I have something in my favor – desire and faith. Romans 5:3-5 has always had an inspirational meaning to me: ‘we rejoice in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.’
“At least I am going to try.
“How about you? Would a little extra effort on your part bring up your grade average? Would you have a better chance to make the football team if you stayed an extra 15 minutes and worked on your blocking?
“Let me tell you something about yourselves. You are taller and heavier than any past generation in this country. You are spending more money, enjoying more freedom and driving more cars: yet many of you have never known the satisfaction of doing your best in sports, excelling in class, the wonderful feeling of completing a job, any job, and looking back on it knowing you have done your best.
“I dare you to have your hair cut and not wilt under the comments of your so-called friends. I dare you to clean up your language, I dare you to honor your mother and father. I dare you to go to church without being compelled by your parents. I dare you to unselfishly help someone less fortunate than you and enjoy the wonderful feeling that goes with it. I dare you to be physically fit. I dare you to read a book not required in school. I dare you to look up at the stars, not down in the mud, and set your sights on one of them that, up to now, you thought was unattainable. There is plenty of room at the top but no room for anyone to sit down.
“You may be surprised at what you can achieve with sincere effort. So get up, pick the cinders out of your wounds and take one more step.
“I dare you!”
NOTE: Cushman joined the Air Force in 1961, kept in training but flamed out for the ’64 Olympics. He and wife Carolyn had just come home with their first child, a son, Colin, when Cushman got orders for Vietnam at Thanksgiving-time, 1965. On Sept. 25, 1966 Carolyn came home to find Air Force officials waiting. Cliff was missing in action, shot down. Carolyn looked and looked. Cliff’s body was never recovered; he was listed as dead in 1975.
A native of Bismarck, N.D., Ray is a graduate of North Dakota State University where he began studying athletic training and served as a student trainer for several Bison teams including swimming, wrestling and baseball and was a trainer at the 1979 NCAA national track and field championship meet at the University of Illinois. Ray later worked in the sports information office at NDSU. Following his graduation from NDSU he spent five years in the sports information office at Missouri Western State University and one year in the sports information at Georgia Tech. He has nearly 40 years of writing experience as a sports editor at several newspapers and has received numerous awards for his writing over the years. A noted sports historian, Ray is currently an assistant editor at Amateur Wrestling News.