When Jan Pasternack speaks, people listen.
While gracious and soft-spoken, her words carry considerable weight from the moment she begins speaking. Somehow, she radiates a strength and charisma befitting her reputation as the queen of American racket sports.
“When I was about eight years old, my dad started taking me with him every Sunday when he played racquetball at Houston’s Jewish Community Center,” Pasternack recalls. “I would watch him, and then I started knocking balls around. Eventually, a few of the guys noticed me and challenged me on the racquetball court. Then they realized I really could play. I think it surprised them.”
Not only was Pasternack still a child when she started, but she was a female child. In the early 1970s, there were very few women playing racket sports. Then in 1973, the world shifted on its axis.
“The women playing racquetball at this time had a different style than mine. I played a more aggressive game, and it unnerved them.”
Houston’s Astrodome hosted the highly publicized “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between top women’s player Billie Jean King, 29, and Bobby Riggs, 55, a former top-ranked men’s player. The match was viewed by 60 million people globally, and the groundbreaking King won handily. It was a joyous moment. King, who came out as a lesbian in 1981, remains a “shero” to women everywhere.
Soon after that tennis match, hopeful female athletes entered all manner of sports. Still, Pasternack remained an anomaly. “The women playing racquetball at this time had a different style than mine. For example, they did not utilize the ceiling in shots, but I did. I played a more aggressive game, and it unnerved them. I played ‘like a guy.’ I have never played for blood, but I’ve always played to win,” she says.
Over the next few years, the Houston native rose to the top in national competitions. By 1980, Pasternack had been playing from coast to coast. She was in her 20s when she put her racket down, but not before securing the title of national two-time Women’s Racquetball Singles Champion.
In 1981, the athlete became an entrepreneur and launched her own business called Pack n Send, Inc., a full-service, packing, moving, crating, and shipping company. As one would expect, Pasternack mastered the daunting challenges of specialized shipping worldwide, and the company continues to grow today.
Then a wonderful thing happened. She and some friends were sitting around bemoaning their single status when they had an idea. They threw a party called “The Meet Market” to encourage everyone to find friends and partners. “We weren’t sure what would happen. I had a big house so I hosted it, and it turned out to be quite a success. We bought 300 name tags and ran out of them early,” she recalls with a smile.
A bright, charming female educator named Renee Tappe attended that Meet Market party and met the host. The two women have now been inseparable for 27 years, and in 2014 they tied the knot.
A wonderful complement to Pasternack, Tappe shares her wife’s sense of humor, gracious manner, and appetite for life. She is also a sports fan, but she does not share Pasternack’s fiercely competitive spirit. “I am not now, nor will I ever be, on her level,” she admits, laughing.
Tappe points out that when Pasternack stepped away from the court, she did not actually leave sports. Today, at 68, she is an avid biker, swimmer, “and she still works out six days a week.”
In 2010, Pasternack fell head over heels for another racket sport—Pickleball. It’s the fastest-growing sport in the world and, as one might guess, Pasternack excels at it.
Pickleball is a combination of ping-pong, tennis, and badminton. It is played on a badminton-size court with a paddle that’s a little larger than a ping-pong paddle. The fun part is the ball, which has holes in it like a wiffleball and moves through the air with the same hesitant grace.
It did not take long for Pasternack’s athletic skills to garner attention on the Pickleball court, and she became the unofficial ambassador of the sport. As the game caught on globally, she traveled to Japan to share it with the Japanese by playing exposition games throughout the country.
“It made sense. The Japanese care deeply about their elderly, and Pickleball is wonderful exercise and encourages socialization for seniors. In fact, it is great for everyone. We went from town to town in Japan teaching it to people, and they loved it,” Tappe proudly notes.
Then in 2018, the couple packed their bags again. This time they went to Spain so Pasternack could compete in the Spanish Open Pickleball Championship in Madrid. Did she place? Do you even need to ask? She secured the gold that year.
There are too many medals in Pasternack’s collection to list, but there is one award she holds dear. In 1995, her racquetball fame earned her an induction into the inaugural class of the local Ronnie Arrow Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
“It was a very humbling honor. I’m not sure I deserve it,” Pasternack admits. “I’m just honored to be there. Out of all my awards, it’s the one I cherish most.”
For more info on Jan Pasternack’s business, visit pack-n-send.com.
This article appears in the October 2021 issue of OutSmart magazine.com.