Most runners have some sort of faith, but Billy Mills’ faith won a gold medal. 

Born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Mills– whose Lakota name, Tamakoce Te’Hila, means love of country or earth– filled his younger days fishing and climbing and hunting and running everywhere. He found that his dynamic childhood made him a pretty good runner, and he earned a scholarship to the University of Kansas. After two years of rampant racism (against his Lakota heritage) and oscillating performances (from undiagnosed diabetes), Billy came within inches of suicide. All that stopped him was the echo of his dead father’s voice saying “Don’t.”

Billy remembered his father telling him that a dream can heal broken wings, that pursuit of a dream can give one the wings of an eagle, so Billy wrote down his dream: “Gold Medal. 1964 Olympics. 10,000 Meter Run.” 

He finished college, enlisted in the marines, then failed to qualify for their Olympic Training Camp. Undeterred, he trained like a madman, then failed to qualify again. He appealed to his commanding officer who bent beneath the sheer force of Billy’s belief in himself. 

At training camp, Billy covered ten miles a day, alternating days of speed— when he’d run repeats of 110 yards— and days of endurance- when he’d run longer intervals. He promptly got injured. Undeterred, he trained through it, running fartleks on golf courses, intervals on grass tracks, and long runs on dirt roads. 

He made it to the Olympic Trials in one piece, set a personal best, but still finished second to a high-schooler. Throughout all this, Billy visualized winning the Olympics each day, running the race over and over in his head. When he got to Tokyo, for the ten thousand meter final, he faced a field of gold medalists and world record holders, most of whom had run faster than him. Undeterred, he stayed on the shoulder of the world record holder, Ron Clarke, as Clarke whittled the field with a series of brutal surges. 

In the final lap, as the two were passing lapped runners, Clarke shoved Mills out to the side. Mills stumbled, recovered, then got pushed aside again as Mohammed Ghamoudi broke for the tape. Mills trailed for half a lap before swinging wide, unleashing a supernatural burst of speed, and storming his way to victory. On the wings of an eagle, Billy Mills won his Gold Medal– the first non-white runner to win the event.

It would be a mistake to blame Billy’s win on belief or divine intervention. He had incredible talent, worked incredibly hard, and made all the right moves in a tactical race. Belief allowed him, however, to stay undeterred through all the setbacks— from failing to qualify for training camp to the vicious surges and elbows of Ron Clarke. There comes a time in every race where the runner, faced with their impending mortality, sags. Such was the strength of Billy’s vision that he remained steadfast through the finish. Though his legs and lungs carried him through the race, his belief carried him to victory. 

Billy Mills embodies the oldest cure for an existential crisis: pick a purpose.