Miller, others used 'Ongley Solution' for injuries

The most important and controversial figure in the tumultuous world of the U.S. ski team might be someone other than Bode Miller.

At least four members of the team -- including Miller -- have traveled to Mexico to visit an orthopedic specialist named Milne Ongley, a man who's been both praised for saving careers and banned from practicing his trade in the United States.

Ongley injects patients with something called the "Ongley Solution," which he says is a mixture of 25 percent dextrose, 25 percent glycerin, 2.5 percent phenol and distilled water. Ongley describes the solution as "a substance that causes the growth of new tissue by the reproduction of similar cells."

That new tissue ostensibly fosters quick recovery from anything from tendinitis to ligament tears.

"Without him," said J.J. Johnson, "I wouldn't be on the team."

But U.S. ski team officials aren't so pleased.

"Guys are on a tight anti-doping policy," said Paul Meier, the U.S. team's athletic trainer. "A substance like that is not regulated. You don't know what it is. He tells you what it is, but there's no literature to prove it."

"I'm assuming [Ongley's] in Mexico for a reason, other than a suntan," U.S. ski team coach Phil McNichol told ESPN. "The whole thing concerns me, that the guys have to fly off to a foreign country to do things that our medical department is saying, 'I don't see the medical value in it.' And we're not really comfortable with the guys doing it.

"That's what we're telling the guys. That's our position, if you want an official position. The guy's practicing out of the country for a reason. And we're uncomfortable at best."

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency declined comment, but none of the skiers have failed a drug test and none of the ingredients listed by Ongley are on the banned list. One U.S. ski team medical staffer said a request for a sample of the Ongley solution went unanswered.

Treatments such as Ongley's -- often called Prolotherapy -- are hotly debated, but hardly researched. Experts allow that injections of sugar-based solutions could have positive short-term effects, but quickly argue there is little if any scientific data showing long-term recuperative power.

"In some cases, it can be helpful," said Kevin Stone, an orthopedic surgeon who has worked with skiers at all levels since 1988. "Sometimes you can create inflammation and tighten up a ligament."

But Stone added: "We're skeptical. It's a risky thing to do."

John Kelly, an orthopedic surgeon at Temple University, went further: "It's the same effect as if you took a needle and probed around. It's a fad."

Kelly also cautions that dextrose and phenol can cause cell death and nerve damage.

The knee is probably the most important body part for the skier, as important in that sport as the quadriceps is to a sprinter or the shoulder is to a quarterback. It's also the most vulnerable.

"The majority of the team has had a knee injury," Meier said.

That includes Miller, whose career nearly ended in 2001 after a nasty fall wrecked his left knee. So Ongley's promise of new tissue growth and healing has an easy audience with skiers and athletes in other agility-based sports.

Johnson said he first crossed the Mexican border to visit Ongley five years ago, when his right knee ached so much that he could not even sit in a chair without severe pain. Orthopedic surgeons recommended either moving or removing his patella tendon, but Johnson said Ongley dismissed his MRI results and administered several injections underneath his kneecap with a "three- or four-inch needle."

Johnson can now do deep squats with little pain. Teammate Erik Schlopy has a similar story, saying he went from limping off the racecourse to skiing without discomfort. He is quoted on Ongley's Web site boasting of "the youngest knees on the U.S. ski team." He referred Bryon Friedman, who traveled across the border for work on a torn ACL. Friedman says he returned to the slopes two days after his visit to Mexico.

"My knee really felt strong and I was pushing it," said Friedman, who is now out with another non-knee injury. "I was totally pain-free."

Miller, who has said, "I don't even take vitamins," even referred family members to Ongley.

Miller refused repeated interview requests, however multiple sources, including friends and family members, said he has visited Ongley in the last year. Miller's agent would not confirm or deny any relationship with Ongley. Ongley himself would not reveal the names of his patients.

Ongley practices in a tiny seaside casita by a dirt road in Ensenada, Mexico, only an hour-and-a-half drive from San Diego.

"It's a funky operation," Friedman said. "You just roll up to a little shack on the beach."

Johnson has on occasion flown from his home in Salt Lake City, received injections, and returned to Utah all in the same day. He said he has seen track athletes from the nearby Chula Vista, Calif., training center sitting in Ongley's waiting room.

But few if any skiers know about Ongley's past. He was sued for negligence in 1987 by former U.S. track star Dwight Stones, and settled out of court. Innocent Egbunike, a Nigerian Olympic sprinter, said his knee swelled to twice its normal size after Ongley treated him in the '80s.

Investigators from California's medical board labeled the Ongley solution "devoid of medical value." They found dozens of former patients who complained of intensified pain and swelling, and reported that Ongley failed in attempts to obtain a physician's license in the U.S. on several occasions, had his license to practice acupuncture revoked in California, and lost a malpractice suit in New Zealand to a man who complained of nerve damage. Ongley pleaded no contest to practicing without a license in Newport Beach and San Diego in 1992.

"Run as far away as you can from this guy," Stones said. "He's hurt people."

Ongley said he practices in Mexico "to get away from insurance companies." He claims to be licensed in nine countries, and said, "I was fully licensed to do what I was doing" in California. He also said he has clients from the NFL, Major League Baseball, and other major sports, and he called Stones, a three-time Olympian, "not a well-respected person in track and field." Ongley said his treatment has never failed to heal, and he wants his only legacy to be "helping people."

His U.S. ski team clients said that's what he's doing for them.

"I trust him," Johnson said. "If he told me to jump, I'd say, 'How high?'"

Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.