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Letters from London - Mitchell Garner’s Blog from London #10

Billy Mills, My Olympic Hero

London, England - August 4, 2012

“My life is a gift to me from my Creator.  What I do with my life is my gift back to the Creator.” - Billy Mills, American Olympic gold medalist at 1964 Tokyo Olympics in men’s 10,000 meters

When Galen Rupp broke one of Steve Prefontaine’s longest-standing records at the United States Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Oregon in June, he made history.  On Saturday night, when he took home a silver medal in the men’s 10,000 meters race at the Olympic Stadium here in London, he may have catalyzed what many hope will be the resurgence of American distance running.

As of Saturday, no American had medaled in the men’s 10,000 meters since the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 1964, when Native American Billy Mills set a then-Olympic record of 28:24.4 and won the gold medal in what many consider to be one of the greatest Olympic performances of all time.  On Saturday evening, Rupp put American distance running back in the limelight.  Rupp’s silver medal Saturday evening was a fitting complement to the gold medal won by his longtime training partner and friend, Great Britain’s Mo Farah.  Both Rupp and Farah train in Eugene, Oregon under their coach, American running legend Alberto Salazar.

For me, Saturday morning started with my customary 8-mile run at nearby Hyde Park.  My thoughts turned to my informal running group in Ann Arbor, the Nasty Boys, with whom I customarily do an 8-mile run through the streets and parks of Ann Arbor on Saturday morning.  I have been running with the Nasty Boys since 1999, and the group running dynamics, combined with adult speed workouts at the track with the Ann Arbor Track Club, have provided me with modest success as a masters runner.  I used to be one of the faster Nasty Boys, but two knee operations and old age have relegated me to one of the “back of the pack” runners.  Still, our Saturday morning run is a wonderful tradition, and it would have been nice for all of them to have joined me here in London this Saturday morning for a gentlemanly training run.

Following my mornng run, I went to Hyde Park to watch the women’s triathlon.  The park was packed with Olympic triathlon fans.  I would estimate the crowd along the combined swimming, biking, and running courses at around 200,000.  The crowds are typical of those here at the London Olympics, where people are wildly enthusiastic about sports in general.  I was unable to get close to any part of the course, and so I settled upon a viewing point on a little rise in the park that allowed me to see parts of all three disciplines.  I engaged a man and woman standing next to me in conversation.  The woman introduced herself as Alexa Clifford, an employee of the United States Foreign Service who works at the United States Embassy here in London.  She and her husband, now retired, met at the State Department.  They told me about their life in London and gave me some tips about good pubs in the area where I am staying, Marble Arch, here in London.  We had a wonderful time together, and after the trathlon had concluded, we took a group picture.

Following the triathlon, I attended a Meet the Olympians reception at the University of Central London adjacent to the Art of the Olympians exhibit that I had previously visited.  There I met Gary Morgan and his girlfriend Jenny, who were talking to Billy Mills, one of my running heroes.  Over the years, I have crossed paths with Billy at various running events, most recently at the Road Runners of America Annual Convention in Fredericksburg, Virginia in 2011.  He is one of the finest individuals I have ever encounted in my lifetime.  He exudes class and integrity.

Billy qualified for the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics as a member of the United States Track and Field Team in the 10,000 meters and the marathon.  The favorite in 1964 for the 10,000 meters was Ron Clarke of Australia, who held the world record.  The runners expected to challenge Clarke were defending champion Pyotr Bolotnikov of the Soviet Union and Murray Halberg of New Zealand, who had won the 5000 meters race in 190.

Billy was a virtual unknown.  He had finished second in the United States Olympic trials.  His time in the preliminaries in the Olympics was a full minute slower than Clarke’s.  Clarke set the tone of the finals.  Halfway through the race, only four runners were still with Clarke:  Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia, Momo Wolde of Ethiopia, Kokichi Tsuburaya of Japan, and Mills.  Tsuburaya, the local favorite, lost contact first, then Wolde.  With two laps to go, only two runners were still with Clarke.  On paper, it seemed to be Clarke’s race.  He had run a world record time of 28:15.6, while neither Gammoudi nor Mills had ever run under 29 minutes.

Mills and Clarke were running together with Gammoudi right behind as they entered the final lap. They were lapping other runners and, down the backstretch, Clarke was boxed in. He pushed Mills once, then again. Then Gammoudi pushed them both and surged into the lead as they rounded the final curve. Clarke recovered and began chasing Gammoudi while Mills appeared to be too far back to be in contention. Clarke failed to catch Gammoudi, but Mills pulled out to lane 3 and sprinted past them both.  His winning time of 28:24.4 was almost 50 seconds faster than he had ever run before and set a new Olympic record for the 10,000 meters.  No American had ever before won the 10,000 meters, nor had one come seriously close until Galen Rupp won the silver Saturday evening here in London.

I asked Billy about his race in 1964.  I thought that a foul should have been called on Gammoudi for pushing.  Billy said that the pushing incident was reviewed after the race and determined not to be a foul because both runners were viewed as trying to simultaneously get to the front of the pack.  He seemed content with that ruling.  His surge in the final stretch showed that he had the strength to overcome the pushing incident and still win the race.  He was mentally prepared to face adversity.

I also asked Billy about his thoughts as he stood at the top of the podium in Tokyo and the American flag was being raised and the national anthem was being played.  He said that was thinking of his father, who had been his spiritual mentor as a child.  His father was the one who have him the inner strength to overcome the prejudice that he endured as a Native American and to have the self-discipline and perseverance necessary to become an Olympic champion in a race in which he was clearly an underdog.  Indeed, so much was Billy an unkown at Tokyo that as he crossed the finish line in Tokyo, one of the meet officials asked him, “Who are you?”

After the Meet the Olympians reception, I decided to visit the famous department store here in London, Harrods.  Harrods of London is an international department store icon.  From the moment you enter the store, you are immersed in luxury of every kind, and the prices reflect that.  If you are a T.J. Maxx devote like my wife, this is not the store for you.  Everything is full price; there are no sales.  I took a picture of a De Beers jewelry display that featured a virtual cornucopia of diamonds.  The picture was free, but not the diamonds.  I know that my wife Ellen is expecting diamonds from Harrods, but the picture will have to do!

After Harrods, it was off to the Olympic Stadium.  For the Brits, it was a night to remember, as they won three gold medals during the evening session.  For the American distance running enthusiasts, it was also a night to remember.  Rupp’s silver medal confirms that American runners can compete with the Kenyans and the Ethiopians in distance running.  Hopefully, the officials here in Tokyo knew Galen Rupp’s name when he crossed the finish line Saturday evening.  If not, they will soon know it.

I am always inspired when I speak to Billy Mills, and I have adopted his words as my personal inspiration.  My goal is to keep giving back to my Creator through my actions and my words.  Hopefully you are enjoying these words from London.

Keep climbing that mountain and have faith.
Mitch “Iron Bulldog” Garner

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