March 08 2011 5:00 AM ET
Navratilova has a cold, and she cut her left index finger with a bread knife earlier this morning. There’s no real talk of editorial control, nor is she anything but a gracious host. When I ask how she’s doing, post–cancer treatment, post–Kilimanjaro scare, she answers cheerfully, the same way when people ask about her woodworking pursuits. “Ten fingers!” she says with a smile, holding up both hands. “Ten fingers, 10 toes, and two boobs.” Her prognosis following treatment is excellent. “Less than 5% chance of it coming back,” she says. “I like those odds. If it comes back, I’ll deal with it. If it doesn’t, great. I just had my mammogram last week, and it’s all clear.”
Drinking mineral water and wearing a burgundy cashmere sweater, chic gray sweatpants, and a white ceramic watch, Navratilova is indeed lucky to be alive today, even if she isn’t about to dwell on it. (“She doesn’t sit around wondering or fidgeting,” Billie Jean King said of Navratilova to CNN last year. “She just gets into action.”)
High-altitude pulmonary edema is no laughing matter. Fluid buildup in the lungs can lead to respiratory failure and ultimately death. A handful of people die each year on Mount Kilimanjaro, the majority from complications of acute mountain sickness, high-altitude pulmonary edema or cerebral edema. Navratilova had pledged to climb the peak as part of a 27-person team representing the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, an international nonprofit community athletics program of which she’s been a longtime supporter. She started the trek off at a minus, suffering from diarrhea, likely a result of having eaten bad fish just prior to the expedition. For Navratilova, the first day was a relatively easy eight-hour climb. But the weather was horrible: torrential rain — and, in higher elevations, snow. Even some of the porters weren’t feeling well.
Navratilova began to lose her appetite, and by day 4 she was gasping for air. Any chance of reaching the summit vanished. “It wasn’t painful. Nothing hurt — I just couldn’t breathe,” she says. “I’ve never had anything life-threatening like this, other than the cancer, which would have been a long-term killer. That’s what scared me afterward. If I didn’t say anything and had gone to sleep, it could have been trouble.”
Yet she sees an upside to the disappointment. “We raised a lot of money and a lot of awareness, which were the goals. The goals were met because of everyone else, and my failure,” Navratilova says with a laugh. “Perhaps we wouldn’t have gotten as much publicity if I had made it to the top.”
The pace of life north of Aspen is slow, but whether here or elsewhere in the world, Navratilova is still very much in touch as an activist — someone who more than 18 years ago was a plaintiff in Romer v. Evans, a lawsuit against Colorado’s odious Amendment 2, which denied any antidiscrimination protections to gay, lesbian, and bisexual residents. While on tour in the early 1990s she was highly vocal about her opposition to the measure — at a time when it wasn’t nearly as compulsory for celebrities to have causes, especially controversial ones. Navratilova was insistent. “Wouldn’t you want me on the front lines?” she asked Sports Illustrated in 1992, shortly after the amendment’s passage (in the article the writer implied that Navratilova’s activism was sucking her attention away from the sport). A few years later the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the amendment. It’s now cited invariably in lawsuits over gay rights, including the challenges against the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8.
“If Amendment 2 came up again, it would be defeated soundly. Despite what all the lovely people in Colorado Springs are trying to do,” she says of the American evangelical capital. And perhaps she's right. As of press time, the Colorado Senate Judiciary Committee just approved a state civil unions bill.
There are certain characteristics that mark an effective activist. Indefatigability and enduring outrage are among them, and Navratilova has both when she speaks about injustice continually inflicted on gay people. Of the teens who have hanged themselves, overdosed, or jumped off bridges over the past year: “What a price to pay to bring attention to bullying in schools and what it does to kids. Kevin Jennings [cofounder of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network and now an assistant deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Education] has been yelling and screaming about that for years. And now it’s getting the attention it should have had years ago.” Of lawmakers who use homophobia for political advantage: “I just want to strangle these mostly Republicans who just refuse to recognize hate crimes and who equate homosexuality with bestiality and pedophilia. And they get away with it. The way they’re bashing Obama is unbelievable. Why is it OK for them to be bullies?” And of Democrats: “They can’t keep backing down! Stand up. I did not agree with [President George W.] Bush, but he stood up for what he believed in, and he just didn’t back away. Even in the face of facts. Obama, he’s got such a hard sell, but I still think he backs off too much.”