Upping Her Game

UPDATED: July 3, 2011
PUBLISHED: July 3, 2011

With a tennis racket strapped tightly to her hiking pack, Martina Navratilova began her ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro. The tennis legend had visions of celebrating at the summit of Africa’s highest peak by hitting a couple balls to see how far they might fly in the thin air at 19,341 feet.

But her goals were much loftier; a few months after completing treatment for breast cancer, Navratilova wanted to show other cancer patients that life goes on after beating the disease. The climb last December also was part of an effort to raise awareness and funding for the Laureus World Sports Academy, an international philanthropic organization of which she has been a charter member since 1995.

Laureus has about 80 active projects in 40 countries primarily aimed at helping impoverished children by using athletics to instill confidence, inspire leadership and create opportunity. Navratilova’s focus was on the plight of children in the slums of Nairobi.

Considered by many to be the greatest female competitor ever to pick up a tennis racket, Navratilova’s career highlights include 18 Grand Slam singles titles, 31 Grand Slam women’s doubles titles and 10 Grand Slam mixed doubles titles.

Ask the retired superstar what other areas of her life she commands with such mastery and her answer is simple. “None,” she says with a laugh. “I’m definitely not nearly that good at anything else!… I’m a jack of all trades and master of one. I wish I could be great at other things, and trust me I try.”

Over the past few years the 55-year-old Navratilova has earned her pilot’s license and scuba certification, written several novels and fitness books, been featured on a reality TV show, worked with inner-city youth in east London and the Bronx, and done charity work in Africa.

“I’ve had an interesting life, and I’m grateful for that,” she says. “I am like my mother. She was very curious and so am I; I like to dabble in things to learn about them.”

True to her intense, passionate style on the court, Navratilova’s definition of “dabbling” might be a little different from the norm. She earned her pilot’s license because she felt it was the one way to conquer her fear of flying. She is a certified scuba diver after spending most of her life afraid of the open water. Meeting a challenge head-on is the best way to handle it, in her opinion. “If you are afraid of something, the fear never goes way,” she reasons. “The fear is always there, keeping you petrified. But when you conquer it, it is gone, behind you. It is easier to face a fear—to challenge it and conquer it than it is to live with it.”

Every day is an adventure for Navratilova. Even when she is not throwing herself into overcoming a phobia, she still wants to immerse herself in every pursuit she can. She explains that she lives life ready to embrace whatever opportunity might come her way. Each new endeavor is the result of being receptive to “whatever feels right, whatever grabs me. Sometimes it’s a friend saying, ‘Hey, come along!’ Sometimes I read something and think, ‘That sounds fascinating! I want to learn more.’” That openness is the key to both mental and physical activity. And as the Health and Fitness Ambassador for the AARP—a position created specifically for her—“no excuses” activity is a cause very near to her heart.

A few years ago, driving outside of Aspen, she noticed a woman running along the side of the road at a very fast clip. “I got closer and realized she had one leg and was running with crutches,” Navratilova recalls. “I thought, ‘What’s my excuse for not running today?’ Whenever I think I can’t do something or I don’t feel like doing something, I think of that one-legged woman running.”

It’s a vision that has carried her far. In February 2010, Navratilova was diagnosed with breast cancer. “For the first time, my world did stop for a moment,” she says. “But then I went into survival mode and solution mode.”

After undergoing a lumpectomy to remove the tumors and six weeks of radiation treatment, the cancer was gone and her spirit undaunted. “I only missed one day of physical activity through the whole thing,” she remembers. “I tried to play tennis but was too tired and had to stop.”

Quickly, her energy returned and she was focused on the next goal: Kilimanjaro. Similar to other quests, the climb was also a way to prove to herself that she had beaten cancer and all of its side effects.

Her training for the climb included racing up all 55 flights of stairs of the Bank America Tower in about 15 minutes—hardly breaking a sweat or even getting winded. Her physical fitness was, in her words, at its peak.

Yet, four days into the six-day Kilimanjaro ascent, Navratilova found herself struggling to walk even a few feet and gasping for air even while sitting still. Something was seriously wrong.

Wrapped in her sleeping bag and roped onto a stretcher, Navratilova had to be carried down the mountain by a team of porters, and then rushed to the hospital. Doctors discovered she had developed a condition called high-altitude pulmonary edema. A buildup of fluid in her lungs, the condition was the result of climbing conditions and not her physical fitness. If she had continued up the mountain, the climb would have put her out of the reach of medical attention and almost certainly would have killed her.

She admitted it was disappointing to see the trek end that way, but “the only failure is the failure to try.” And her ultimate goal was still accomplished. “Two-thirds of our group made it to the top, which is a higher percentage than average for the mountain, so I feel good about that. Our goal was to raise money for the children in Nairobi and we did that…. I don’t need to reach the top to feel good about myself.”

Indeed, the climb helped Navratilova raise close to $100,000 for Laureus’ work for impoverished children in Nairobi’s slums.

Navratilova is now thinking about future challenges. She has never been to South America with Laureus, so she is hoping to make a visit to raise awareness of the living conditions of the poor in several major cities.

In the meantime, she will continue to tirelessly campaign for the causes near to her heart and seek out new ways to grow personally. “I’ve played hockey for about 15 years now and I love it. And I did the biking portion of a triathalon last year,” she says. “With tennis, it’s about slowing the deterioration, but with my other activities, I’m still improving.”

As Navratilova sees it, she has no choice in the matter: “What is the alternative? You have to take that first step. Don’t get overwhelmed by the enormity of it all… just keep moving forward. That’s the only way to really live.”

It should come as no surprise that a woman who was at the top of the tennis world from her debut as a teenager to winning a mixed doubles Grand Slam title only a month before her 50th birthday would believe in the importance of always moving ahead and keeping focused on the next big thing. Even in light of the health challenges she’s faced, she is determined to stay positive. “Without attitude, you have nothing,” she says, definitively. “Attitude is a choice.”