Hopewell lacrosse player Chris Hollander battles on the field, but off of it, he must endure a medical condition that not many people have to deal with. It’s a rare affliction known as achalasia—an esophagus issue that affects the ability to swallow.
He has undergone multiple surgeries and takes medication every day. While some young men might play the pity party and feel the proverbial grass is greener on the other side when it comes to health problems, the Hopewell Valley Central High School senior looks at others’ situations and feels his lawn is just fine.
‘[Hollander] serves as an inspiration to all of us who aspire to be strong-willed.’
“It kind of stinks,” Hollander said. “It’s something I’ve gotta live with for the rest of my life but in retrospect it’s not that big of a deal. There’s kids out there that have things that are a lot worse. I’m just living with it. Everyone has their thing and this was mine. Spending time at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, you see kids who have been in there for months and it really makes you almost grateful your issue is so benign compared to theirs.”
Hollander not only lives with it, he thrives with it in the classroom and in athletics. As a linebacker/tight end on the football team, he was coach Dave Caldwell’s selection for Hopewell’s honoree at last month’s George Wah Scholar-Leader-Athlete scholarship dinner.
As a lacrosse player, he is the Bulldogs defensive standout as they head into a promising season. Hollander will continue his career at Ohio Wesleyan University next year. The only thing he can’t swallow on the field is using his condition as a crutch for failure.
“It’s not something he talks about too much to me, other than there’s some occasional flare-ups he has to get taken care of,” Bulldogs coach Matt Foret said. “But he doesn’t use it as an excuse not to perform.”
Caldwell feels there is no better example of a leader.
“Chris is a model of school standards, positive attitudes and dependability,” Caldwell said. “He serves as an inspiration to all of us who strive to be strong-willed in the face of adversity and challenges.”
Hollander took it to another level last spring after suffering a significant elbow injury prior to the season. He played the entire year wearing a brace on his dominant right arm and still made All-Division.
“A lot of kids would have had to sit out the season but he played the whole season not being able to use his right arm and never complained,” Foret said. “He’s the kind of kid who will show up and play hard for his teammates no matter what’s going on with him.”
There is usually a lot going on with Hollander, who has a cumulative grade point average of 90.59 and is involved in a list of clubs and activities that is longer than the pole he uses to defend with.
Hollander volunteers for the Hopewell Valley Arts Council, does work for the National Organization for Rare Diseases-Achalasia, the National Foundation for Swallowing Disorders, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Special Olympics, and the school district’s Leadership Corps. He is a volunteer coach for youth lacrosse, personal mentor for freshman football players, a designated peer leader and a group leader for Hopewell Valley Clean Communities.
Amidst all that, he still finds time to be one of the top lacrosse defenders in the Colonial Valley Conference, combining talent with physicality and intelligence.
“When you put those three things together, it makes for a really good player,” Foret said. “He can play one-v.-one defense, he’s really good as a team defender. He slides, backing up players.
“What sets him apart is the stick skills he possesses. A lot of times at the high school level, you can find kids that can defend really well but when it comes to the clearing game and handling the stick they might not do as great a job. His stick skills are phenomenal. We rely on him a lot in clearing situations. And he’s a threat to score when he crosses the midfield so that’s a really big asset for us.”
Born in Missouri, Hollander moved to Hopewell at age 5, and his parents signed him up for youth lacrosse in first grade His dad played for Division III Alfred in upstate New York and always loved the game.
“Plus it was a social thing for my parents,” Hollander said with a laugh. “They got to meet new people through taking me to games.”
Hollander started as a short stick offensive player but one day at club practice for Team Turnpike, they needed some defenders and he picked up a long pole.
“I liked it a lot, so I stuck with it,” he said. “I played offense maybe one year but I’ve always been a defensive guy.”
Hollander played two years for Timberlane and made the Bulldogs varsity as a freshman. But coming home from a game late that season, he began noticing an issue with swallowing. Several days later he began choking as the achalasia surfaced.
“It was one of the scariest things ever,” Hollander said. “Because it’s a pretty rare thing, the doctors had a hard time diagnosing it. But it finally got all figured out.”
Hollander had two surgeries during that summer and another one on the first day of school, forcing him to miss his sophomore season of football. Since then he has had five more operations but said casually, “they’re easy recoveries.”
Foret first started coaching Hollander his sophomore year and was immediately impressed by how well he took to a new coaching system.
“When you have players that are really accomplished and a new coach coming in, you could get different things,” Foret said. “But he set a good tone for the team with being really receptive to what we were trying to teach him to do.”
It did not take Hollander long to adapt to the new stuff.
“As a sophomore, even though we had some really experienced players we put him on the other team’s best player all the time,” Foret said. “As he got more and more comfortable in what we were asking him to do, he was able to shut down some very good offensive players.”
The coach added that during his 10th grade year, Hollander got by on raw ability but got a little too over-aggressive, leaving the Bulldogs vulnerable in certain areas. Since then he has learned to use better technique and play good positional defense.
Hollander’s abilities drew recruiting interest from several colleges, including some Division I schools. He chose Division III Ohio Wesleyan because it just felt right.
“They contacted me first, I did some investigating and made my way out there,” he said. “I kept an open mind and it was an awesome fit. I liked the coaches and players a lot. It seems like a place I can spend the next four years and have a family out there. I fell in love with it.”
But first, he’s looking for a big senior year in high school.
“This is going to be one of the standout years we’ve had in the past couple of seasons,” Hollander said. “We’ve got some strong upperclassmen and underclassmen. We have kids that can score at all levels, we have guys who stand up to the task of playing offense and defense.”
And in Hollander, they have an inspirational leader.