The 18-time Grand Slam singles champion was brought to tears with the realization that she would be unable to reach the summit of Africa’s highest peak after her lungs filled with water on the fourth day of the climb.
"I wrote in my diary every day the best that I could," Navratilova told me when I spoke with her on a conference call this weekend, "and when I got to camp that Thursday afternoon I wrote: 'I have never been so utterly exhausted. Everything is taking a monumental effort—going to the bathroom, getting dressed, setting up the tent. Today was mostly sled or downhill, but totally straight up from the get go, and from camp…' and that is when I stopped writing because I started crying because I was so disappointed. At that point I knew there was no way that I would make it to the top."
It is such a shame because she is so fit and determined. I would go as far to say that this hurt her pride as much as anything else. I climbed the second highest building in New York with her a couple weeks ago as she continued her preparations for the climb, and she was looking forward to the challenge and all that it entailed.
When I spoke with Navratilova this weekend, she said she was obviously disappointed not to make it to the top, but she was delighted that more than $60,000 has been raised for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation.
Laureus supports 80 projects around the globe that use sport to tackle some of the world's most pressing social issues.
Navratilova, who was leading a 27-strong team up Kilimanjaro, had reached 4,500 metres during the day—the highest point of the climb so far—before porters were forced to carry the star four-and-a-half hours down the mountainside from the Horombo campsite overnight.
She was taken to Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre for assessment then flown to Nairobi Hospital for further tests which showed she was suffering from high altitude pulmonary oedema—an accumulation of fluid in the lungs.
Navratilova had struggled through the first three days of the ascent after gastrointestinal problems struck at the start of the climb, but she was advised to stop the climb by doctors on day four after her breathing had became so weak that she was unable to get from her tent to the bathroom.
“I just thought I was not feeling well because of [the gastrointestinal problem] which I think that was all it was at that moment, but because of that my system was a little weakened and the doctor thought that it might have contributed to the pulmonary oedema.
“When you climb Kilimanjaro you walk very slow—like shuffling like old folks do—but you have to go slow to acclimatize and save the energy for getting to the top. But even as slow as we were going I still had to stop…and I knew something wasn’t right.
“I didn’t feel badly I just couldn’t breathe or get a full breath of air. I kept thinking, ‘this is a lot worse than it should be.’”
Navratilova described the journey up the Tanzanian mountain as one of the hardest things she has ever had to do in her life, and she said the worst thing was that she had to stop even though she wasn't in any physical pain.
“This was physically and mentally the hardest thing I have had to do because it is relentless," she said. "You never had a chance to relax. Even when you’re outside and you have a really hard workout and it’s really cold and you get wet and you’re shaking, you can go home, have a hot bath and you’re fine. There was no escaping from that and it was only going to get worse.
“I had to retire, basically, when nothing was hurting. I just couldn’t breathe. When you’re an athlete when you get injured it hurts, that’s why you have to stop because something hurts you. There was no pain here, I just couldn’t walk.
"I did get annoyed at those tickers on the bottom of the news that were running, “Failing Navratilova quits Kilimanjaro attempt.” Quitting would suggest one has a choice. My choice was to go up and die or go down and get well. I’m not a quitter.
"I didn’t have to be 100 percent, but I couldn’t be 20 percent. I really don’t like giving up but at the same time I am very pragmatic. You don’t argue with the doctor. The only failure is when you fail to try or if you don’t give your best effort.”
Navratilova may not have hit tennis balls from the top of the mountain like she had hoped, but that doesn't make her trip a failure. Far from it. She has helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for a great charity and she has brought global awareness to a deserving project.
Navratilova joked that a climb up Mount Everest is probably no longer on her bucket list, but rest assured that this great woman will keep highlighting the profile of worthwhile causes. It will take more than a mountain to stop her from doing that.