When All Else Fails, It’s Time to See the Olympic Body Mechanic
CHANDLER, Ariz. — John Ball was savoring the silence. It was pushing 10 p.m. on a weeknight in early June, and his small clinic was largely empty …
CHANDLER, Ariz. — John Ball was savoring the silence. It was pushing 10 p.m. on a weeknight in early June, and his small clinic was largely empty for a change. Only Colleen Quigley, a world-class steeplechaser, was lingering for treatment, though Ball said he was anticipating another “straggler.”
Olympians need help. They need physical therapists and strength coaches and sports psychologists. They need specialists to mend their bodies and heal their minds. They need people like Ball, who, to his dismay, is the most celebrated chiropractor in track and field.
“He’s a genius,” said Molly Huddle, the American record-holder in the women’s 10,000 meters.
“That’s my guy,” said the triple jumper Will Claye, a three-time Olympic medalist.
“You do realize this job is going to kill me,” said Ball.
In the months before the Tokyo Games, a turnstile of Olympic hopefuls with strained hamstrings, cranky knees and inflamed joints hobbled to a sleepy office park outside Phoenix to see Ball, 42, a health care professional who was dreaming of taking an extended vacation.
Ball used to employ a small staff, but he prefers to do things himself, and his business became a one-man operation during the pandemic. Invoices and unopened envelopes piled up where his receptionist once sat. (A former protégé recalled the time he met Ball’s father, Jack. “He hasn’t fired you yet?” Jack Ball asked him.)
A voice came from the training table.
“Just soak the hip?” Quigley said.
“Yeah, just soak it and we’ll start in a second,” John Ball said.
Quigley alerted Ball that someone else was at the door.
“Leave them locked out,” Ball said.
Peering through the glass was Ben Blankenship, a 1,500-meter runner who wanted to vie for an Olympic berth with a stress fracture in his leg. Ball opened the door.
Ball was hoping to disappear for a while after the Tokyo Games. He might head to Central America, he said. Or South America. Or Thailand. The point was that he would be several thousand miles from his athletes. He had dropped only vague clues about his future whereabouts, lest they follow him there.
“I need a break after this Olympic cycle,” Ball said. “It overruns you.”
Ball never intended to operate a high-end repair shop. He would actually like to do more performance-based work, he said. He wants to help athletes run faster and jump higher.
But runners and jumpers are always wrecking their bodies, and he feels responsible for those who depend on him — even if there is no magic, he said. He essentially analyzes the way athletes move so that he can deconstruct and rebuild their mechanics. He does soft-tissue work with his hands, manipulating muscles and loosening limbs.
He is not a surgeon. He does not prescribe medication. And at a time when it is nearly impossible to avoid the taint of performance-enhancing drugs, he does not provide supplements, he said, or recommend any, aside from fish oil.
“I don’t think I do anything special,” he said. “I genuinely think the things we do are pretty simple, and maybe that’s what’s special.”
The distance runner Sam Parsons recalled having trouble scheduling appointments with Ball for treatment on his Achilles’ tendon. So he would show up outside his office before he opened. When Ball arrived, he would often walk past Parsons without acknowledging him. Eventually, one of Ball’s assistants — when he had assistants — would poke his head out to tell Parsons when Ball could see him.
“It might be that afternoon,” Parsons said. “Or it might be tomorrow.”
Over time, Parsons came to understand why Ball seemed so impassive.
“There are so many sad sacks like myself who go to him as a last resort,” Parsons said. “You go to John Ball when nothing else worked, and that is what he has to take on: He has to take on some of the most broken, battered people, and he has to take on all that emotion. No wonder he’s numb to the kid sitting on the sidewalk outside.”
For his part, Ball doesn’t seem to have much trouble maintaining perspective.
“It’s always funny to me because they’re like, ‘Ugh, my Achilles’ hurts,’” Ball said. “OK, well, they cut part of my eye out last week. Everybody’s got their problems.”
Gravity is the enemy
Ball grew up in Davenport, Iowa, where his father coached football and his mother, Jan, was a chiropractor. Tim O’Neill, one of his closest friends, recalled that Ball was intelligent and athletic — the fastest kid in the neighborhood. Ball thought he would play college basketball, until his 3-point shot evaporated when he was in high school.
“I couldn’t see the hoop,” he said.
Diagnosed with keratoconus, the gradual thinning and bulging of the cornea, Ball abandoned his wayward jump shot to run track at Arizona State, where he learned the hard way what it’s like to run with nagging injuries. Before his senior year, he left school because of a family emergency and wound up studying for his chiropractic degree in his hometown.
“I wanted to be really good at something,” Ball said, “and when I found this, I probably did become slightly obsessive.”
He returned to Arizona and opened his own practice, seeing regular people with regular problems. His favorite patient, he said, was an older woman with carpal tunnel syndrome who knitted him a blanket.
His career changed in the run-up to the 2004 Olympics, when he met Patrick Nduwimana, an N.C.A.A. champion in the 800 meters while at the University of Arizona. Nduwimana, who was recovering from ankle surgery, said a friend had recommended Ball as a practitioner of “active release therapy,” a form of manual chiropractic treatment. For about an hour, Ball applied pressure using his hands on Nduwimana’s ankle as a way to release tension.
“Have you seen his hands?” Nduwimana said.
Ball, who has biceps for thumbs, made such an impression on Nduwimana that he moved to Phoenix from Tucson so that Ball could work on him more often.
Nduwimana was patient zero, the word-of-mouth gateway for other high-level runners, many of whom train in the Phoenix area and at altitude up the road in Flagstaff. In 2010, for example, Huddle was spending a few weeks in Arizona when her leg started to bother her. She went to see Ball for the first time.
“And he fixed it in like a day,” she said, “and I was like, ‘What?’”
Huddle recalled Ball’s attire: T-shirt, basketball shorts and sneakers. His new patients are always surprised that their chiropractor looks like a walk-on point guard. There is also the small matter of his vision, which Ball, who has had transplants of both corneas, says he gets asked about a lot: “How can I see what I see if I can’t see?”
The short answer is that he sees well enough to get by, and poorly enough to give him an excuse to avoid social contact. His circle is small. He wants to keep it that way.
“My people are my people,” he said. “You also have to understand that my world for a big chunk of my life was the 20 feet I could see in front of me. So if you weren’t in those 20 feet, I didn’t even know you were there. And I still like people to think that I’m super blind so that I can go into a room and ignore everyone I don’t want to talk to.”
His job has evolved to where it defies easy description: He is part-chiropractor, part-physiotherapist, part wellness adviser in his own way. “I’m a teddy bear,” he said, deadpan.
He talks about “reverse engineering” to find the root of a problem. He references gravity as an invisible enemy. He says things like: “It’s easy to conceptualize that if we aren’t moving well in the ankle or the hip, it’s going to upload the knee.” And: “When you start pulling yourself down the stretch instead of ballistically bouncing, it requires a different pattern of muscle.” And: “I don’t really know how to explain what I do.”
His athletes think of him as a body mechanic. As the runner and filmmaker Alexi Pappas put it, “He never looks at you like you’re a problem he doesn’t know how to solve.”
A few months after competing at the 2016 Olympics, Pappas was injured and seeking treatment for depression when she bumped into Bernard Lagat, the five-time Olympian. “You should see John,” he told her.
Pappas decamped to Arizona for three months. Ball restored her explosiveness, she said, and was a source of stability at an uncertain time. She later wrote a passage about him in her memoir, “Bravey,” which Ball said he might get around to reading someday.
Some athletes spend a lot of money on his services. (Parsons joked that Ball owns “about 3 percent” of Tinman Elite, his Colorado-based running team.) Some, like Claye, who lives in San Diego, regularly fly into Phoenix for a few hours, then fly home that night. (“Worth it,” Claye said.) Many say Ball could charge more than he does — about $150 an hour.
“I make a healthy enough living,” Ball said. “I’m not going to do anything but spend more money on a nicer Ping-Pong table for my living room.”
Nor does he seek publicity. He said he agreed to be interviewed only because his mother told him to do it.
“She said the boys would get a kick out of it someday,” Ball, who is divorced, said of his two young sons.
‘I’m not a guru’
Hours after winning the women’s 10,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in June, Emily Sisson was facedown on a training table in a room at the Valley River Inn in Eugene, Ore., as Ball pulled on her ankles (pop!), pushed on her hips (crack!) and folded her limbs like origami.
“He put me through some of the most stressful treatments that I’ve done in my life,” Parsons said, “where I got in my car afterward and wanted to cry.”
Throughout the trials, Ball had been operating his remote clinic out of the hotel — and on someone’s lawn across the street from Hayward Field. Comparatively, it was the height of luxury. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Ball treated Claye next to a concession stand outside the stadium.
Sisson has been one of Ball’s regulars for years, paying him weekly visits to help her manage “a couple of chronic things,” she said. She and her husband had been living year-round in Rhode Island when they bought a home near Phoenix in 2018. Ball’s presence, she said, was not the only reason. “But it was a huge plus,” she said.
Ball said he was surprised when she told him that she would be spending more time in Arizona, at least in part because of him.
“It does make me uncomfortable because I’m not a guru,” said Ball, who rattled off a list of other chiropractors he respects. “The idea that I’m the only one that can help people with a lot of these things is just silly.”
He understands that he makes many athletes feel more confident. There is a psychological component.
“You got on a plane and flew here, so of course you feel better,” he said. “I take advantage of that all the time.”
Sisson acknowledged that “a lot of what he does is mental, even though he probably won’t admit it.” (He admitted it.) She recalled warming up for the London Marathon in 2019 and slipping on a curb. She banged her knee and twisted her ankle, then went to Ball in distress. He had her do some strides.
“You’re fine,” he said.
She finished sixth in a decorated field.
Sometimes, things happen that are beyond his control. Shelby Houlihan, a top contender in the women’s 1,500 meters, was suspended ahead of the trials after she tested positive for a steroid. She said she ate a contaminated pork burrito. Ball said he had spent a great deal of time in recent months working on her foot.
Speaking generally, Ball said he does not pretend to know what happens outside his office.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Is so-and-so clean?’” he said. “Sure, there are some where I’ve had my suspicions and that sort of thing. But I don’t know. The only drugs I know anybody’s ever taken are the ones that I’ve taken.”
As the trials drew to a close, he was looking forward to his sabbatical. Because of pandemic-related restrictions, he was not headed to the Olympics. He had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, he wanted to be there for his athletes. On the other hand, he was tired.
At the hotel, Ball was wrapping up his session with Sisson when Blankenship appeared outside his patio door. He let himself in this time.