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Standing tall

  • BOB FORD/TIMES NEWS Chris Cholast displays a poster showing his martial arts prowess.
    BOB FORD/TIMES NEWS Chris Cholast displays a poster showing his martial arts prowess.
Published March 30. 2013 09:02AM

When Chris Cholast walks into the Alpine Bakery to buy an egg sandwich, he is as unassuming as everyone else who waits in line.

And everyone there has a life story. But Cholast's script about the events in his life would be worthy of a major motion picture directed by Steven Spielberg.

From snake catcher, to champion martial arts fighter, to war survivor, to author, to speaker of seven languages, to sports agent and collector, in addition to so much more shoved in between, this Jim Thorpe resident has had an extraordinary 50 years of life to say the least.

The movie would begin in the 60s by showing Cholast growing up in rural Poland with his brother, mother, and father.

"It was a tough life," he says, "My brother and I walked seven miles to school every day while my father made very little money as a mechanic on a cargo ship."

To help out with expenses, Cholast, at age 7, would run into the woods and catch poisonous snakes to sell to local hospitals where they made antidotes for snake bites.

"Then one day I was at a circus and while the charmer played the flute, I saw a cobra lift itself out of a basket. I saw money there so I ran up and grabbed the snake and ran away."

Cholast was caught red-handed. The next movie scene would show his parents bringing him to a new school as punishment for his deed. At the age of 8 he learned tae kwon do at the school, a fighting style in the manner of martial arts.

He got so good at fighting he traveled across Europe and became the junior European champion at age 15. Two years later, Cholast earned the title of European champion, but one year following this accomplishment his life would take a serious down turn when it was mandated that he join the Polish army.

"This was in 1980 during the labor unrest in communist Poland," he explains. "I was a member of the special forces and we were told we would have to shoot and kill anyone in the streets who resisted authority. I told them that in no way would I do this."

The camera continues to roll.

Because of his non-compliance, Cholast and 2,500 other dissenters were dropped into the Afghanistan desert with minimal supplies in 1980.

"About half of our number were dead in two weeks from temperatures of 120 degrees. I survived scorpion bites because I have an antidote in me from being bitten by poisonous snakes when I was a kid."

To survive the elements was only one problem for Cholast. In the hypothetical movie, viewers would see the fact that he was shot in the leg, sent to a hospital in Hungary and then sent right back to Afghanistan where he was shot again, this time in the arm. He also learned he needed to kill to survive. And he did.

"I had to get out," he remarked. "Two years later, I befriended the American military stationed there and they helped me get to Korea where I could speak the language (he also speaks English, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, and Japanese as well as Polish.) Then I found out that since I was a deserter my father and brother were arrested back home, but thankfully they were released."

In Korea, Cholast became an illegal underground tae kwon do fighter and earned a seventh degree black belt. He was not allowed to fight for the Korean National Olympic Team because he was not native born. He made sure he did not win enough bouts to get to the "final twelve," an elite group of fighters. He would then have to fight one of them to the death.

The next scene takes Cholast to New York where he continued to fight in the underground for big money that was to be made from all the top dollars bet on him to win.

"I made as much as $50,000 for fighting two or three times a week," he says.

He did lose a couple times, once to a woman.

"She broke my ribs and one of my arms," he says, shrugging his broad shoulders. "I guess I just had a bad day."

Cholast also got involved in the construction business working for a billionaire during his 10 years in New York. He earned enough to buy an entire city block of commercial businesses in Brooklyn.

It was in New York where his son, Carle was playing hockey for a New York Rangers minor league team in Staten Island. Cholast became friends with the coach and two-time Stanley Cup winner with the New Jersey Devils, Alexei Kasatonov. Their relationship led to Cholast investing his fight and construction earnings in the sports memorabilia and collectors' industry. First he started a sports agency to set up autograph sessions for retired and current professional athletes. His list included well over 1,000 names.

"I have organized shows for Joe Namath, Michael Vick, and skateboarder, Tony Hawk, to name a few. Some athletes get $7,000 an hour to sign so it was very profitable."

Change scenes again, now to the miracle on ice in 1980 when the USA hockey team defeated the vaunted Russians at the Olympics. In 2001, Cholast paid from his pocket to bring that Soviet team to Madison Square Garden for a reunion and autograph signing session with the gold medal Americans.

"I found out that after the Russians lost that game, they returned to their homeland and were forced to spend two weeks living on the ice at a rink with very little food to eat. This was their punishment for losing a hockey game. I paid all their travel and food expenses to come to New York. Several players stayed in my home."

When his big screen story would be edited, several other scenes would have to find their way into the film. Cholast has worked security for the largest nightclub in Manhattan. He was also a member of the private guard to protect Pope John Paul II during his visit to Poland. He has battled anger management issues. He once walked into a pub in New York and put $500 dollars on the bar and said to the bartender, "This money is for the damages I'm going to do to your place." Then he beat up several patrons single-handedly just to settle a score.

Another time Cholast tried to break up a fight when one of the combatants flashed an FBI badge and held a gun to his head.

"I knocked the gun away and broke the fingers on his hand. Then I called 911 to get him help. We not only got over it, he's been my best friend for the past 15 years."

He is not all brawn and no brain. He's authored a book written in Polish; the translation into the English title would be "I Did Kill to Leave." The book recounts his experiences in Afghanistan.

"I can't get it published in the U.S. I was told I disclose too many secrets about what went on during my stay there and I guess they want to keep what I know from the American public."

Today Cholast lives in the Pocono Mountains, which he says is "just like Poland in the change of seasons " with his wife, Elizabeth, who he met in New York. They were married in the Jim Thorpe courthouse and the clerk set up a room for 40 people to attend the ceremony.

"So Liz and I show up and we see all these chairs and I ask what they are for and he tells me for our ceremony. I told him it was just Liz and me and no one else was coming. Then we got married."

He currently operates a successful Internet sports collectible business site as " while his wife also works from home selling antiques. He is building a large addition to his house so he can display his memorabilia. His collection contains over 5,000 signed baseballs with names like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Ted Williams. He owns thousands of baseball cards, some that hold expensive price tags like Derek Jeter's and Ken Griffey Jr.'s rookie cards. In his possession is a collection of 400 of 476 existing 1909-1911 tobacco baseball cards. Cholast knew Wayne Gretzky when the Great One sold a 1909 Honus Wagner card for $2.8 million at auction. Also in Cholast's possession are 2,000 bobble head dolls, and hundreds of signed football helmets. Beyond the business of it, he claims he just loves sports.

"If I got a chance to live my life over again, I think I would like to play American football," he jests through his pronounced Polish accent.

Cholast is well aware that his fighting days are behind him as he has settled into the quiet life in Jim Thorpe. He has his two bullet holes in his 6-foot 2-inch frame, a metal rod in his back, and scars on his arms and hands where he was cut with knives during his caged fights. He only needs to look at his body to remind him of his brutal past.

Despite the battle wounds, his heart remains strong. He contends, with a genuine smile on his face, that Elizabeth has "tamed the beast" in him. When asked how she managed to do this, he gazes down at a picture of his bride of five years that lies on a table and he says, "I just love her, that's all."

If the motion picture is ever to be made, viewers will leave the theater knowing that he is a self-made man with the nine lives of a cat and the fortitude to profit from a sequence of unfortunate events.

But like most movies that are filled with rags to riches plots underscored with subplots of humanitarianism sprinkled with some acts of violence, viewers, when asked what kind of movie depicts the life of Chris Cholast, they would most likely say, "It's a love story."

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