Courtesy of WOWSA, Odaiba Marine Park, Tokyo.

For those who remember the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, the 10,000m gold medal run of Billy Mills is still considered one of the greatest individual efforts in Olympic history.

Odds are that there will be a Billy Mills-like swimmer who will emerge in the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, 2024 Paris Olympics or the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

Mills was raised in South Dakota and orphaned at 12 years old. A Native American of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe, his given Lakota name is Makata Taka Hela which means “love your country” or more traditionally translated, “respects the earth”. Although he was a 3-time NCAA All-American cross-country runner and considered to be an excellent domestic runner who qualified second in the U.S. Olympic Trials, he was not considered to be an Olympic medal contender by anyone’s stretch of imagination.

Especially since no American had ever won the 10,000-meter run before – and no other American has done since.

The overwhelming 10,000m run favorite was Australia’s Ron Clarke who held the world record and would eventually set 12 world records in his illustrious career. The other medal contenders were the Russian defending champion and the 1960 5000-meter run Olympic champion. Mills was easily an afterthought, if he was thought about at all. But, like all true heroes, he knew in his heart what his goals were.

In front of a partisan Japanese crowd, Clarke set the pace early on and picked up the pace every other lap. By the 5,000m mark, the lead pack included four runners: Clarke, a Tunisian, an Ethiopian, a Japanese and Mills. As the race progressed, the Ethiopian and the Japanese fell off the pace. With 800 meters to go, Clarke was in control with only Tunisia’s Gammoudi and Mills hanging on. While Clark held the world record in 28:15, Gammoudi and Mills had never run faster than 29 minutes. The gold medal appeared to be Clarke’s for the asking.

At the bell lap, Mills and Clark were running together with Gammoudi right at their heels as they lapped the slower runners. As 10 km marathon swimmers can appreciate, the men were sprinting while fighting for position as Clarke was boxed in. Mills was in a great position down the backstretch, but then Gammoudi pushed them both and surged into the lead as they rounded the final curve. Mills appeared to be out of the running for the gold as they rounded the final curve. Clarke recovered as they weaved in and out of a mass of slower runners. It was to be a final sprint between Clarke and Gammoudi while Mills appeared to be too far back to be in contention. Incredibly, As Clarke failed to catch Gammoudi, Mills sprinted past them both, with an incredible spurt of energy and speed. With a kick that will forever remembered in Olympic track history, Mills won in 28:24, almost 50 seconds faster than he had ever run before.

There is a modern-day Mills in the Olympic marathon swimming future,” predicts Steven Munatones. “Maarten van der Weijden was the unlikely victor in the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim in Beijing in 2008 and there will be other unexpected medalists in open water swimming’s future.”

Hollywood recreated Billy Mills’ feat when actor Robby Benson starred in the 1984 film Running Brave:

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