Navratilova can't fail if she tried

Dec. 18, 2010, 5:48 p.m. (ET)

The only time I could talk to Martina Navratilova, I was told, was 2:45 in the morning.

Okay.

She was in Europe, having flown there from Kenya. I was in California. 2:45 in the morning was 11:45 in Paris, where Martina was. Take it or leave it, I was told.

I took it, because what she did over the last couple days is the essence of what life is about. She set out to climb Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. She had undertaken the climb for charity, for the Laureus Sport for Good foundation.

She didn't make it to the top. In fact, she had to be carried off the mountain, fluid in her lungs making it tough to breathe.

Kudos to Martina.

The point is she tried.

Bruce Springsteen likes to say at his shows that it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive. The point of life is the trying. 

The greatest athletes among us, and by any measure Martina Navratilova ranks in that group, understand that innately. That's what makes them champions. That's what makes them different from you and from me. They readily embrace the sort of risk and the sorts of challenges that the rest of us don't, or can't.

The thing that makes Kilimanjaro different, though, is that it's the kind of challenge the rest of us ordinary mortals can undertake.

I'm never going to win Wimbledon.

I'm never going to win an Olympic medal.

I'm never going to climb Everest.

But I can make it to the top of Kilimanjaro.

In fact, in 1998, I did, along with one of my very best friends, Logan Faust, a doctor.

Kilimanjaro is a trek, not a technical climb.

That said, it's hugely demanding. The summit is about 19,340 feet high. There are a variety of ways to go; our way meant climbing up for four and a half days and racing down for one and a half. The reach for the summit itself, at least in August, meant climbing overnight on the last of the going-up days; we started at midnight at 15,000 feet and reached the peak just past dawn. 

Dawn is critical because at that hour the sun hasn't had a chance to melt the snow, meaning it's still packed hard enough so you don't fall through it. 

On the trek up, you move through an amazing variety of climates. Jungle gives way to big boulder zones. The boulders turn to loose rock. Then the air gets thin and very, very cold.

How cold? I went to college at Northwestern, just north of Chicago along Lake Michigan. My junior year, we had a snowstorm that dumped 27 inches of snow on us; the windchill during that event, as I recall, reached to minus-83 Fahrenheit. Yet the coldest I have ever been is at the crater rim with an hour yet to go to reach the Kilimanjaro summit.

I had six upper layers on to hike through the night and was still bone cold. As the sun started to illuminate the seemingly unending African plains far below, our guide suggested we duck into a cave he knew at the crater rim. Let's have a cup of tea, he said. Tea! Logan and I almost screamed out the same response. Tea! What? Screw the tea! Dude, let's keep going!

At 19,000 feet, you are almost crazy.

Of course, our patient, knowledgeable and experienced guide knew full well what he was doing. We needed the liquid, and the heat, and a dose of good sense. We made the summit about an hour later.

Only about half of all those who set out for the Kilimanjaro summit make it. In our group of eight, four made it. In Martina's group, 18 of 27.

Martina said by phone from Paris that she's going to be fine. The doctors have told her there won't be any lasting effects from the experience. "I've been better but I'm on my way," she said, adding, "We all gave it 100 percent."

There has been enough time now since leaving Kilimanjaro to ruminate now on the experience. It wasn't particularly fun, she said, and in particular the weather for the Laureus climbers proved consistently miserable. "From the second day, I felt like I couldn't take a full breath of air. I felt like there was somebody sitting on my chest," she said, adding, "I got to the point when I was going to the bathroom and the rock to go to was 20 meters away and I was like -- I can't do that. 

"I should have known something was seriously wrong when I didn't want to eat. That," she said, laughing, "is not me!"

Four Swahili-speaking porters got Martina off the mountain. They brought her down in a wheelbarrow-like litter, one guy in the front, one in the back, one on each side. It took four and a half hours, she said. 

The important thing is they got her down. Literally, they saved her life.

Nothing about any of it says failure. Martina doesn't think so, and neither does anyone else. 

As she said, and after all this is the entire point, "The only failure in life is the failure not to try."

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For those who may be interested, this is the link to donate to Martina's Laureus Kilimanjaro climb fund:http://www.firstgiving.com/martinakiliclimb