Some people believe champions are born. Others believe they have to work at it. For Illinois State senior thrower Akil Mills, it was a combination of both.
Mills was recently crowned the Missouri Valley Conference Champion in the weight throw event at the MVC Indoor Championship tournament last weekend. He was also named “MVC Field Athlete of the Year.”
For some, the fact that Mills did not begin throwing the weight until his senior year of high school is proof enough that his talent as a thrower is natural. But Mills does not discount all of the hard work he has put into throwing during his time at Illinois State.
“I’ve been working for four years and it just feels great,” Mills said. “I’ve been working so hard my whole career, and to get [the title], it kind of gives me another level of confidence.”
Mills first began throwing during his junior year at Grayson High School in his hometown of Loganville, Ga., and was introduced to the weight his senior year through a club at his high school.
“[It] was so strange — I was good at it but I didn’t like it because it was so heavy. But everyone told me I should stick it out and see how it goes, and it’s going right now,” Mills chuckled.
Mills’ throw of 21.19 meters, along with his support system, landed him the No. 1 spot in the MVC, pushing him through to the NCAA Championship, which will be held on March 14-15 in Albuquerque, N.M.
“It was great having everyone there as my support system,” Mills said. “My family wasn’t able to be there, they live in Georgia so it’s kind of hard for them to come up, but they called me the night before and we talked. I chatted with my dad for a bit and kind of kept everything in perspective, you know, what I’ve been working for these four years. My girlfriend surprised me and drove to Iowa to watch, my coach has been supportive [and] same thing with Curt [Jensen] and my teammates. They were all supporting me and cheering me on. It was great.”
Upon his arrival at Illinois State, the track and field coaching staff had planned for Mills to compete in the weight as his primary event and compete in the shot put as his secondary event.
“That was fine for me because throwing the weight every day kind of gets tiring, so I needed something else to balance it out a little a bit,” he said.
As do many athletes, Mills has role models, but recognizes one as a life role model and the other as his athletic role model.
“In life, my role model is my father because I feel like he’s a great model for how things are supposed to be,” Mills said. “He’s positive, encouraging, he never stays down too long with anything in life, he always finds a way to get out of a funk or get out of a groove. My dad is also really humble and modest and I try to repeat that. I’ve been looking up to my dad since I can remember. He’s a police officer so he has always been like one of those ‘my dad’s cooler than your dad’ dads.”
In the realm of throwing however, Mills found an idol in Olympian and Georgia native Kibwe Johnson, whom Mills knows personally.
“This guy, he’s a beast. The reason I look up to him is because he has basically all of the records in Georgia for any event — discus, shot put, hammer — so you go down there and he’s in the hall of fame right now. He’s well established and well-known, and he’s really composed and really personable. Even though he’s an Olympian, I actually sent him a message when he was going to the Olympics last year like ‘hey, good luck, much love from Georgia,’ and he was like ‘I know exactly who you are.’
“People like him not only help the sport, but everyone just likes being around him and those type of people,” Mills said.
For now, Mills is focusing on the task at hand: the NCAA Championships.
“You know, it’s kind of tiring right now because it’s so late [in the season] and everyone else is done, but I know I have to keep going,” Mills said. “I have to go into it with the same head I went into every other meet with this year … [The NCAA Championship] is the only thing I was really trying to get back to in the first place. I’m training the same — nothing really has changed. Just keeping my same head and mindset.”