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Physical adversity didn't stop 3-sport athlete

The surgery was a success. But the surgeon at Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington wanted to make something clear.

Cherry Hill West's Chelsea Holiday.  (April Saul /Staff Photographer)
Cherry Hill West's Chelsea Holiday. (April Saul /Staff Photographer)Read more

The surgery was a success.

But the surgeon at Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington wanted to make something clear.

"The first thing the doctor said after the surgery was, 'She'll always be behind the other kids,' " Rob Holiday said of the prognosis for his daughter, Chelsea, after an operation on her spine when she was 9.

Chelsea Holiday had other ideas.

"Every year we go back for a checkup and every year the doctors just shake their heads," Rob Holiday said. "They are amazed."

A senior at Cherry Hill West, Chelsea Holiday is a three-sport athlete. She was an all-conference all-star in volleyball. She's a starting guard in basketball. And she's a standout hitter and infielder in softball, the sport she plans to play at the collegiate level.

"I like playing all three, but I probably enjoy softball the most," said Holiday, who also plays for the Marlton Thunder ASA travel softball team in the spring and summer. "But whatever season it is, that's what I like to play. I just like to stay active."

Holiday is known in the halls of Cherry Hill West as a quiet, pleasant girl, a strong student, and a top athlete.

She doesn't make a big deal of the fact that she underwent spinal surgery as a 9-year-old and needed to learn to walk again. Or that she underwent additional surgery on her heel as an 11-year-old. Or that she still has limitations from the condition of her right leg.

So nobody else does, either.

"Her freshman year, I coached her in volleyball for a month before I even realized her situation," said David Gurst, the former Cherry Hill West volleyball coach and now the Lions' softball coach. "She never said a word about it."

Dan Butler, Cherry Hill West girls' basketball coach, said Holiday's contributions to the program stretch far beyond her ability on the court. She's a starting shooting guard and perhaps the team's smartest player, but it's her attitude that makes the most impact on the Lions, Butler said.

"The thing that stands out about Chelsea is that she's such an enjoyable kid to be around," Butler said. "She's so coachable. She's a good player - consistent, disciplined, intelligent. She started every game for us last year [as a junior].

"But the big thing is her positive approach. She's always positive about the team."

Chelsea's mother, Yanell Holiday, a student family advocate at Cherry Hill West, said her daughter's demeanor has been the secret to her remarkable ability to navigate the ups and downs of her physical condition.

Chelsea Holiday's right leg is smaller than her left leg, with much less musculature. She also has a bit of a hitch in her stride because of complications with her right heel.

"She would always be like, 'Oh, I have to be in a boot? How long? OK,' " Yanell Holiday said. "Or, 'I have to go to therapy? OK.'

"She never complained. She never allowed herself to feel sorry for herself. Early on, one of the doctors told her, 'Chelsea, the only thing that can hold you back is you.'

"She's taken that to heart. She believes that."

Holiday said she believes it's "wasted energy" to lament her physical condition, to wonder just how good she could be in sports if she had full strength and flexibility in her leg.

"I could feel sorry for myself, but I still would have to deal with it, so what good would that be?" Holiday said. "I don't make a big deal about it. I just play."

Gurst said Holiday is a "role model" for other students at Cherry Hill West.

"First and foremost, she's an incredibly pleasant young lady," Gurst said. "She's what you think of when you think of a student-athlete. She's the kind of kid that everybody should look up to, because she's so determined and all she does is work and work and work."

Senior Alicia Deflaviis, a standout centerfielder for the Cherry Hill West softball team, said her close friend is an "inspiration" to students in the school.

"She just pushes past it," Deflaviis said of Holiday's approach to her condition. "She never talks about it, never uses it as an excuse. She just works hard to improve. She's an inspiration to me and others in the school."

Rob Holiday, who is a director of amateur scouting administration for the Phillies, said Chelsea has compensated for the condition of her lower body as a hitter in softball by relying more on her upper body.

A top hitter whose signature moment for the Lions was a home run last season against crosstown rival Cherry Hill East - "That's one we'll never forget," her father said - Holiday has been deeply involved in the recruiting process with around a dozen colleges.

Originally, her plan was to play volleyball in college. That's why she was playing for a club volleyball team last winter, shuttling from two-hour practices for the Cherry Hill West basketball team to two-hour practices for the volleyball team.

"That was hard to watch at times," Rob Holiday said. "But she just pushed herself to get through it. That amazed me."

But after a strong junior season with the Lions and with her ASA team, Holiday decided to try to play softball in college. She hopes to make a decision in the near future.

Her parents said Chelsea's plan to play sports at the collegiate level is consistent with the mind-set that has carried her through that major surgery as a 9-year-old and that tendon transplant as an 11-year-old and all the therapy and all the doctor visits and all the other obstacles that might have stymied someone with less determination.

Chelsea Holiday said she doesn't look at it that way.

She keeps it simple. She likes to play. She wants to continue to play.

"I am who I am," she said. "I don't think about it. I just go."