COOS BAY — It’s been 54 years since Billy Mills won the 10,000 meters at the Tokyo Olympics, but he still got huge ovations twice Tuesday from Coos Bay crowds.
Mills spoke to students at Marshfield High School in the morning and then again at a free screening of the documentary about his life at the Egyptian Theatre in the evening. Both times, the groups cheered madly when video of him crossing the Olympic finish line played.
Mills was in the Bay Area at the request of Linda Prefontaine, sister of famed Coos Bay distance runner Steve Prefontaine.
She made his trip the first of what she hopes becomes annual visits by speakers to inspire the area’s youth. The event at the Egyptian was to share Mills with the community.
Mills told the students about his experience growing up on a reservation, experiencing racism while he was an All-American runner at Kansas University and realizing his dreams of being an Olympic champion.
His mom died when he was only 8 years old, and he said his dad inspired him to become the runner he did.
“When my mother died, my father said, ‘Find your dream, son. Find a passion in life. Develop the skills to equal the passion. When you find a passion and bring the skills to equal the passion, magic happens.’”
Tragically, his father died when Mills was only 12 years old.
But he remembered his father’s words, sharing the concept of pursing dreams several times with the students and during a question and answer session after the documentary.
He had a couple of other messages for the students.
“It’s the journey that empowers us,” he told them. “It’s the daily decisions we make that choreograph our destiny.”
And he talked about the support of his wife of 56 years, Pat, who was his support system throughout his preparation for the Olympics and since.
During the Olympic race, she was the inspiration for him to keep going when the leaders went through the first half at a torrid pace that was only a second slower than his lifetime best for 5,000 meters.
“She knew I was using the virtues and values of my culture,” he said, going onto explain the significance of that concept.
“It’s the virtues and values of our society that give us direction, that give us confidence, that give us clarity of mind, that give us hope,” he said.
He talked about living with diabetes and hypoglycemia and the depression that comes with it that can cause suicidal thoughts.
“I constantly have a dream in front of me,” he said of how he overcomes the suicidal thoughts.
Mills challenged the students to dream and think for themselves.
“Few are those who can see with their own eyes and feel with their heart,” he said. “Most people let peer pressure see for them.”
With the students and again later for the community, he talked about how being Olympic champion has given him the opportunity to travel the world and meet people from different cultures. By learning about their cultures, they can work to improve the world together, he said.
He repeatedly came back to the theme that today’s children can reverse the history of the taking of land from the Native Americans and slavery that shaped the history of the United States, locking those people out of the American dream.
“There’s nothing worse than economic poverty except the poverty of dreams,” Mills said.