Growing up in Pine Ridge Indian Reservation makes it impossible to succeed, at least that is what Olympic gold medallist Billy Mills heard growing up.
Mills spoke to a crowd of around 500 at the Givens Performing Arts Center Tuesday night, as part of UNC Pembroke's Distinguished Speakers Series. He talked about what he says is the greatest challenge in the world, overcoming perceptions. An Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Indian, he also talked about overcoming perceptions of Native Americans.
"Other people's perceptions almost broke me," Mills said. "I remember my dad telling me not to worry about other people's comments."
Mills never has. Orphaned at age 12, he grew up in one of the poorest Indian settlements in the nation. He wanted to be a boxer but lost all his matches. He tried football and was knocked down, so he got up running.
"I started running in high school, winning races, and when I joined the Marine Corps, I knew I wanted to be in the Olympics," Mills said.
And Mills was stunningly successful. In the 10,000-meter run of the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, he came from behind three other runners at the tape to record one of the biggest upsets in history. He remains the first and only American to win the Olympic 10k and that record still stands.
"Anyone with a mission who lives up to the values and responsibilities of success is teaching sacredness to others," Mills said. "Because values are sacred and sports teach life values."
Mills is a strong believer in integrity no matter the goal.
"Value-based empowerment will guide you to your goals," Mills said. "Follow your values, and you'll achieve your goals for the benefit of yourself and mankind."
Mills has lived by that code and shared it with others since his Olympic heroics. He has carried that message back to the reservation to help his people and beyond.
After his speech, Mills stayed to sign autographs, pose for pictures and speak with everyone who stood in line. Prior to the speech, he taped a 30-minute television show with UNCP's WNCP-TV.
Filmmaker Spike Lee is the next UNCP Distinguished Speaker at GPAC is February 2 at 7 p.m.