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The Lakota Comeback Kid: The Olympic Story of Makata Taka Hela


William Mervin Mills, “Billy” was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation on June 30, 1938, to a one-quarter Sioux mother and a three-quarters Sioux father. He would become known as Makata Taka Hela in Lakota which translates to “respects the earth.” He was considered mixed race by Indigenous standards and Indian by the local whites.  His mother passed when he was 8 and his father just 4 years later when he was 12. Orphaned, he was sent to the Haskell Institute, a Native American boarding school in Lawrence, Kansas.

Eventually, Taka Hela earned a track and field scholarship to the University of Kansas. There he experienced more racism than he did back home in South Dakota. He had a large support system in his teammates. Despite not being able to room with his black and white teammates and friends and being unable to join any fraternity on campus, his teammates made efforts to ensure that he was included in athletic situations by publicly asking him to stand next to them in team photos and the white athletes electing to stay in military barracks with their minority teammates instead of nice hotels on the other side of the towns they competed in. 

Taka Hela lived according to the teachings of his father who had always challenged him to live as a warrior and assume responsibility for himself. He didn’t have an American Dream because he didn’t know what that was. As an Indigenous young man, he had been locked out of the American Dream. When racing, he often used visualization techniques to meet his goals.

After receiving a degree in physical education in 1962, Taka Hela enlisted in the US Marine Corps. After bootcamp, he became a First Lieutenant in the Marine Corps Reserves. The Marines permitted him to train for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. During that training period, he running average was 35 miles per week. 

He qualified for the 10,000-meter race and the marathon. However, he did not scale back his training as coaches suggested. Four days before the 10,000-meter competition, he ran 25 miles. During that competition, he visualized a young Native American winning the 10,000-meter race at the 1964 Olympics. 

That day, he kept a steady pace and was in third place as the end of the competition neared. Mohamed Gammoudi (Tunisian) and Ron Clarke (Australian) were in second and first places. 

Gradually, Taka Hela picked up the pace and began closing the gap. The polite Japanese crowd grew silent as they watched. During the homestretch, Taka Hela kicked into an unexpected surge and past the leading competitors. At the tape, Taka Hela beat Clarke by a full second and Gammoudi by 3 yards to finish with a new Olympic record time of 28:24.4. This time was 46 seconds better than his previous best. 

Taka Hela was considered an underdog for the race. It is still referred to as one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history. 

After the Olympics, Taka Hela continued running and set US track records for the 10,000-meter run at a time of 28:17.6 and the 3-mile run. He also made a personal record with the 5,000-meter run of 13:41.4. At the AAU National Championships, he tied with Gerry Lindgren for the 6-mile run at 27:11.6. 

Taka Hela has since continued to leave a legacy of health and wellness across the US. As a Type-2 Diabetic, he promotions diabetes prevention and management education for adults and youth, encouraging them to maintain healthy lifestyles and improve their lives. 

Taka Hela also collaborated with Eugene Krizek to found Running Strong for American Indian Youth in 1986, a non-profit organization that aims to help Native American people fulfill basic needs – food, water and shelter – while also helping their communities gain self-esteem and self-sufficiency. Running Strong is an affiliate of the Christian Relief Services. Taka Hela is currently their acting spokesperson and travels around the country to empowering youth and encouraging them to chase their dreams. 

Taka Hela married his college sweetheart, Pat, an artist, in 1962. They relocated to Fair Oaks, a Sacramento, California suburb in 1964. They have 4 daughters, 12 grandchildren, and 2 great-grandchildren. 

The legacy of Taka Hela is long and includes 8 Hall of Fame inductions; 2 books; a plaque on the Sacramento Walk of Stars; a Lawrence Unified School District 497 middle school renamed in his honor; a biographical feature film, Running Brave (1983); a Presidential Citizens’ Medal for his work with Running Strong for American Indian Youth; the NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award; 2014’s Anti-Defamation League’s Concert Against Hate Honoree; Lifetime Achievement Award honoree from the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition for a “career that greatly contributed to the advancement and promotion of physical activity, fitness, sports or nutrition nationwide;” a feature episode of On Being, a podcast that explores the intersection of spiritual inquiry, science, social healing and the arts; a resolution from the Virginia State Senate in honor of the 50th anniversary of his Olympic win; and an honored spot carrying the Olympic Flag into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum at the XXIII Olympic Games’ Opening Ceremony in 1984. 

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