By: Malcolm Mayhew
Although it happened 45 years ago, for Ronnie Mills, the experience feels fresh as yesterday. His natural athleticism manifested even as a youngster. The Fort Worth resident won the Olympic bronze medal in the 100-meter backstroke at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Just 17 and a student at Arlington Heights High School, Mills also was a member of the USA gold medal-winning relay team during those same games. And there’s more: Mills is also the “pioneer of Fort Worth high school swimming.”
After he arrived back in Fort Worth following his award-garnering performances, Mills’ fellow AHHS Yellow Jackets and a slate of local luminaries showered him with a surprise hero’s welcome on the school lawn. Unbeknownst to Mills, his parents were in on the secret, “hiding” his car that morning (they said it was in the shop for a tune-up) so he’d have to hitch a ride to school with his mother. When they pulled up at Heights, Mills recalls seeing a swarm of people, all standing on the campus grounds and all clapping their hands and chanting his name. His reaction: “Complete shock,” Mills said, noting he was a shy boy who neither wanted nor expected such an exuberant display of affection from his peers and the public. Local news media captured his arrival on film while classmates hoisted him up above the excited crowd, striding the Olympian to a podium, where a reporter unceremoniously pointed a microphone at him. Taken aback but completely unfazed, Mills delivered a short but endearing speech. The back page of that year’s AHHS yearbook is dedicated to Mills and his Olympic victory. It sports a black-and-white photo of a beaming Mills, the entire montage an ink-on-paper reminder of that serendipitous morning celebration.
Back in the day, many Texas cities had swimming teams — but not Fort Worth. (Mills, instead, swam under his Amateur Athletic Union [AAU] coach.) To remedy this, upon his return from Mexico, the teenager gave an impassioned speech to the Fort Worth school board about the need for high school swim teams.
“Based upon my presentation, the board unanimously passed a resolution providing swimming teams and coaches for all the high schools in the Fort Worth Independent School District, beginning the following year (1969–70) and going forward,” he said.
After high school, Mills went on to become an NCAA All-American at Southern Methodist University, where he was inducted into both the International and the Texas Swimming & Diving Halls of Fame. After graduating and working for several years in the business sector, in 1978, at age 27, Mills won the 10-sport Dallas Superstars Decathlon, besting athletes from all of the pro teams in the area, including Dallas Cowboys Roger Staubach and Drew Pearson. “The TV, radio and newspaper media were so befuddled that they had to report the awarded title of ‘Best Professional Athlete in Dallas’ went to an Olympic medalist swimmer, as I was not a professional athlete, but an amateur,” Mills recalled.
Mills then swapped tennis shoes for business suits, launching a successful advertising career in Dallas and ending it back in his beloved Fort Worth. He retired at age 48 and spent the next nine years caring for his elderly parents before they passed away.
Today, Mills plays golf and tennis at Ridglea Country Club, does volunteer work and manages the two commercial properties he owns in west Fort Worth.
“The Lord blessed me with a wonderful life. I had two very loving parents who were supportive of everything I wanted to do and every goal I wanted to achieve,” Mills said. “I would have never accomplished the things I was so fortunate to accomplish without their love and support.”
By: Malcolm Mayhew