I confess that I am something of a running junkie. I do it, I coach it, I read about it and I watch it when I can. Through some recent running-related reading, I stumbled onto the inspiring and insightful story of Billy Mills, an American runner who staged the greatest upset in Olympic history. Billy obviously did this through hard work … lots of it … but key to his success was something beyond mere physical preparation.
Billy Mills was a 26 year old U.S. Marine when he qualified for the 1964 US Olympic team by placing second at the US trials in the 10,000 metre race. Entering the Olympic final, absolutely no one, except for Billy Mills himself, had him in their radar as a contender. After all, Billy’s best times for the 10,000 meter distance were almost a minute slower than the best in that highly competitive field. The millions watching expected World record holder Ron Clarke of Australia and a handful of well known contenders to battle it out for the medals. It didn’t go that way.
Even as an overwhelming underdog, Billy Mills had the audacious goal of being Olympic champion. He prepared his body and he deliberately prepared his mind. In the years and months leading up to that final, he visualized, dozens of times per day, winning that race. His running diary was filled with positive self-talk. As the race approached, he knew who and what he was up against, yet he continued to believe in himself and his vision of success.
If you want to see the final two minutes of the race … it’s thrilling … search it on ‘you tube’. With about a lap to go, you’ll see a leading Billy Mills get elbowed out of the way by a surging Ron Clarke. As Billy stumbles, Tunisia’s Mohamed Gamoudi also pushes through the gap and rockets into the lead. Mills hangs on desperately in third but seems out of the race until, with 30 metres left, he rallies a final sprint to take the gold. En route, he sets an Olympic record and betters his personal record by almost 50 seconds. Disney could not create a more improbable ending.
In post-race interviews, Billy points out his diary entries that are peppered with references to his positive visualization, his belief in his dream and his commitment to his goal. He describes the power of that visualization when, in the last 150 metres of the race, his hearing and vision were cutting in and out, but his mind kept repeating the well-worn mantra, “I can win”. With 30 metres to go, while still in third place, his mind was already telling him, “I won! I won! I won!” And of course, three seconds later, he did.
Billy Mills became only the second Native American to win an Olympic Gold medal, and he is still the only American ever to win Olympic gold in the 10,000. He continues to be an amazing hero, humanitarian and fundraiser for global charities. His language and, I’m sure, his thoughts are peppered with positive talk and powerful visualization of the success he dreams of creating.
Like Billy Mills, we all create our end results, success or failure, in our minds first. While positive self-talk and visualization are never a substitute for hard work, they can be powerful levers when things get tough. I believe it is always worth asking, “Am I visualizing the results I really want to create for myself”?