Martina Navratilova is a remarkable athlete and an even better person. There is quite literally nothing she cannot accomplish when she sets her mind to it.
She has won 59 Grand Slam tennis titles and defeated breast cancer, and just 25 days before she sets off to climb the highest freestanding mountain in the world she climbed up 55 flights of stairs in the second tallest building in New York without even breaking a sweat.
I should know...I was about a dozen steps behind her, chugging my bottled water and looking up in awe, trying not to think about the fact that my legs had turned to jelly and that I still had 11 flights left to go.
Navratilova, quite possibly the greatest female tennis player that ever lived, is putting the finishing touches to her preparations to lead a team of 28 people to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in December to raise money for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation.
The Foundation celebrates the universal power of sport to bring people together as a force for good and uses the passion that sport inspires to effect social change across the globe. Based in London, it tackles society's most pressing challenges around the globe, supporting projects on every continent.
Before she flies out to Africa, though, Navratilova—who was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year—climbed to the top of the Bank of America Tower in Times Square on Wednesday to give people a small glimpse into just what will be involved in the seven-day climb from Dec. 6 to Dec. 12.
While members of the press gathered to shoot video and take photographs, they all took the express elevator to the 48th floor...except me. I wanted to get a first-hand look at the kind of effort needed, even if the BoA building is just four percent of the total height of Kilimanjaro and completely indoors.
By the 12th floor I decided to take on some water. At the 21st floor, Navratilova picked up an internal phone in the stairwell and jokingly tried to order pizza while everyone else caught up. After 10 minutes and roughly 800 steps my thighs were refusing to co-operate, and when I finally got a glimpse of blue sky I was panting as if I had tried to outrun a cheetah.
Navratilova, one of 46 Laureus World Sports Academy athletes worldwide, was already a minute into a press interview on the roof, looking out toward the Chrysler Building in the distance as if she had just left the hotel lobby. No heavy breathing. No sweat. Just smiles.
"That was a tough climb, but the views from the top are well worth it," she said. "It has also proved to me that my Kilimanjaro training is going well, and I feel fit and healthy ahead of the main challenge in December.
“I made the decision to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation at the beginning of this year, and despite everything that has happened, I now have a clean bill of health and am determined to reach the summit and raise funds for Laureus."
Of course, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro—at 19,341 feet tall—will be so exponentially more difficult than a mere 1,300 stairs, but if anybody is ready for the challenge, it's Navratilova, who will also be joined on the journey by South African mountaineer Deshun Deysul, German Paralympic cyclist Michael Teuber and British Olympian Gail Emms.
Considering that overcoming challenges embodies the spirit of Laureus, it almost seemed like a perfect coincidence to have an ambassador like Navratilova championing the cause.
"It took me a couple months to recover from [the radiotherapy treatment] but I've been great for a few
months now and cancer-free since March so I'm all good," she told me.
"I didn't know when I agreed to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro what was going to come when I was getting ready for it, but it will be a nice way to finish off a year that didn't start so well. It will put a nice exclamation positive point on the year.
"Life is about challenges and how we face up to them and the attitude we take into every day life so hopefully we'll be able to motivate people to do more with their life."
Speaking with her shortly after the stair climb with youngsters from Camp Interactive, part of the network of Laureus Sport for Good projects, her philanthropic nature and caring demeanor shone though as she spoke passionately about using sport as a tool to break social barriers.
"Sport has been at the forefront of social change all along. It's been breaking down barriers with color, gender and sexual orientation and we have been at the forefront of it for a long time.
"The goal for the Laureus Sport For Good Foundation is to give kids an opportunity to be involved in sports and hopefully learn some lessons along the way. We want to put them in a safe environment, help them if they need it and maybe they will get a scholarship to a school because of the skills that they learn. Sport is just a starting point.
"Sport doesn't know barriers really. You are judged on your performance...how far you can jump, how fast you can run, how well you can hit a tennis ball. The tennis ball doesn't know how old I am. The ball doesn't know if I'm a man or a woman or if I come from a communist country or not. Sport has always broken down these barriers."
In the 10 years that Laureus has been going, the charity has raised over $50 million and currently supports almost 80 sports-based projects around the world, tackling the toughest social challenges facing young people today such as HIV/AIDS, substance abuse, crime, social exclusion, landmines awareness, violence, discrimination and physical and mental health problems.
In China, Laureus' Special Olympics program is the world's largest sports organization for children and adults with mental handicaps. In Brazil, Fight for Peace is based in Complexo da Maré, a favela where there has been a decade of territorial drug wars between two of Rio de Janeiro's largest trafficking factions.
In Naples, La Palla Storta is a three-year project which aims to introduce the sport of rugby to the schools in the worst affected neighbourhoods in the country, while in New York City, I Challenge Myself provides public high school students in high-risk communities with opportunities to increase self-esteem and health awareness through athletic accomplishment and community involvement.
The list goes on and on, with projects helping millions of children across six continents.
Navratilova wants to give youngsters affected by these challenges a better chance in life through sport.
"It gives kids such confidence because they want what we all want really; attention, recognition and appreciation. They are being heard and they feel valued and when they feel that they grown in confidence as they grow as a human being. "If you give respect, you get respect back so we're teaching some good life lessons and values and hopefully get kids fitter at the same time."
To support Laureus or to make a donation toward Navratilova's climb, visit http://www.laureus.com/get-involved/mount-kilimanjaro-climb/.