Commentary

Martina Navratilova's climb for a cause

Updated: December 8, 2010, 3:58 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

Martina Navratilova was speaking on a scratchy cell phone connection from Nairobi, Kenya, while riding in a car after a visit to the Mathare, one of the largest and worst slums in the world. She was detailing what she expected to confront starting Monday, when she began a six-day climb of Mount Kilimanjaro in nearby Tanzania, which is partly to raise money for the Laureus Sport for Good youth soccer program she'd just visited in the Mathare, and partly Navratilova following through on a new challenge she set for herself as she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer earlier this year.

Most people don't bounce back from a battle with cancer by thinking it would be a great idea to combine climbing the highest mountain peak in Africa to raise money for a program that's trying to save African children living in some of the most forbidding conditions imaginable. But Navratilova has a lifelong pattern of combining sports, activism and her personal backstory in way that she hopes will be both inspiring and lead to lasting, concrete change. The datelines of her undertakings have often been far-flung.

[+] EnlargeMartina Navratilova
laureusarchive.com Martina Navratilova's climb up the Bank of America Tower (1,200 feet) in New York will be nothing compared to the daunting challenge that awaits.

So when someone approached Navratilova about joining 27 others on the fundraising trip up Kilimanjaro, Navratilova looked at the Laureus' goal of raising 100,000 Euros (about $133,000 U.S.) for the Mathare Youth Soccer Association and other programs on the continent and didn't stop at saying yes. She visited the MYSA herself Saturday and played a quick pickup game with some of the kids and staff, among other things and -- typically -- came away from the experience thinking big.

"I'd like to at least double the original [fundraising] goal now," Navratilova said. "The dollar or euro or pound goes a lot farther in their world than ours."

Hoping the MYSA can save some boys and girls from the crushing poverty or HIV/AIDs epidemic all around them is no more idealistic than, say, being 18 and deciding you were going to defect from Communist Czechoslovakia with no help at all, as Navratilova did in 1979 when the Iron Curtain showed no signs of coming down.

Conditions in the Mathare are bleak -- no running water or electricity, widespread disease, many people living in cardboard lean-tos or shacks. The entire continent of Africa, which Navratilova has been visiting since 1997, is beset by challenges.

But Navratilova's personal history makes her worth listening to about the transformative power of hope.

"I've been to the [Mathare] slum, and it's depressing and heartening at the same time," Navratilova said. "You see the people coming out of there, walking to work, and they're all cleaned up and ready to go. The kids have a smile on their face, they just want attention. … The skill level [of the soccer teams] is really just astonishing. It's so nice to see these kids in this environment where it's safe and supportive for them while they're living in total squalor. These kids have nothing. You walk around and the stench is overwhelming, and there's just stuff everywhere -- garbage, trash, human feces.

"I'd like to raise as much money as possible and help these kids, if only in a small way."

Navratilova laughed and agreed there are probably easier ways to raise money for Laureus than trekking up Kilimanjaro. When a Laureus public relations person who was also on the Nairobi conference call said Navratilova might be available to talk again this weekend when she reaches the mountain summit -- cell phone permitting -- Navratilova laughed and joked, "That's what they think. I'm not worried about the technology working. I'm just worried about me being able to talk."

As climbs go, the conditions encountered on an ascent to Kilimanjaro's 19,341-feet summit are challenging, but typically not as life threatening as an assault on Mount Everest, whose summit is 29,028 feet.

Navratilova says what she's been told to expect is, "It's just going to get harder and harder and colder and colder as we keep climbing up.

"You can get pretty silly by about 14,000 feet and we'll still have to go to 19,000 feet. It's a matter of managing your energy, not trying to rush anything, listening to the porters. A lot of people don't make it because the altitude sickness gets to them, and that's something you can't overcome with willpower[or by saying] 'I'll just ignore this splitting headache.' No. You can get into all kinds of trouble and die if you do that. So it's kind of unpredictable."

Still, the 54-year-old Navratilova is confident enough about reaching the summit this Saturday to pack a tennis racket in her gear. She'd like to whack a few shots from the top just to see how far the balls fly in the thin air.

She also thinks after a year that started with her breaking her arm in an ice-skating accident, then getting diagnosed with cancer in February and undergoing six weeks of radiation treatment that left her doctors pronouncing her cancer-free by the end of the summer, this trip will be a nice capstone on what's been an otherwise "lousy" year.

"I always appreciated life, but it's been enhanced," Navratilova said. "I was a tennis player for a long time, but I was always interested in other things, and I always liked to push myself within the tennis world as well as outside. I don't do crazy stuff where if I fail I die. That doesn't appeal to me. But I do like to push my boundaries. I had a terrible fear of flying, so I got a pilot's license. I had a terrible fear of drowning, so I got a scuba license. ... That old saying nothing ventured, nothing gained is true. It's just taking that first step. Then you're on your way, you're one step closer. To me, there's more fear not to confront fear. Because then it always stays with you."

Navratilova's philosophy remains the same whether the obstacle is cancer, climbing Kilimanjaro or helping Laureus improve its Mathare soccer project and use it as a blueprint for similar programs across the African continent. The MYSA has twice been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and had about 24,708 active players this year -- nearly 5,000 of them girls in a country where gender discrimination is deeply entrenched. Saturday, Navratilova also helped Laureus announce it has commissioned a report, to be published next year, which will explore how sport can be more extensively used to solve some of the most pressing social problems affecting the African continent and achieve some key development goals.

The challenges are daunting.

But as Navratilova says, "To me, the biggest tragedy is not to try."

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.