LERNER CAN’T QUITE HANG UP THE RACKET
RIVERSIDE – The first time Vance Lerner remembers playing a form of racquetball was 1955, in Waikiki, while stationed in Hawaii with the Air Force.
“I used a sawed off tennis racket on an outdoor wall,” said the 81-year-old pioneer of the sport. “It was a great workout. It really got you moving.I felt like someone had to get this game going.” As it turned out, Lerner would be one of them, opening the first racquetball club in the region, in Colton in 1976 – a regional home for numerous pros and nationally ranked age group players for more than a decade.
Wistfully, Lerner accepts the fact that the hey-day of the club has passed, with five of its 11 courts now converted for other health and fitness center uses. As for Lerner, his hey-day just won’t quit.
Last month, he came out of retirement to participate in the USA racquetball National Championships in Fullerton, and won the 80-plus bracket for his sixth national age group singles title, beating the other four competitors in a round-robin format.
“I was retired 20 years ago,” said the remarkably fit, former Air Force pilot of his racquetball tourney days.
Not really. Six years ago, when the national masters tourney was held in Canoga Park, he said he entered the 75 age bracket, won and declared, “It’s over! That’s it!”
Not so fast, again. When the USAR Nationals relocated to Fullerton from the East Coast this year, for a five-year stay, Lerner couldn’t help himself.
“I might as well keep playing, ” he said, suggesting he will defend his title next year. “I’ve been very fortunate, been in good shape. When you get to be my age, a lot of guys you’ve played against are sick or they’ve died. I’ve been lucky. It’s mostly good genes.”
His devotion to the sport helped too. “He’s been playing for more than 50 years and promoting the sport forever, too,” said Mike Lerner, one of his two sons who have taken over dad’s ownership share of the club. “He’s always had a great love of racquetball.”
The sport’s rules were codified in 1949 by a Connecticut man named Joseph Sobek. Its first national association and championships weren’t born until 1968.
Meanwhile, Lerner was working for Uncle Sam – 22 years as an Air Force transport pilot, including a tour of Vietnam. His last station was Norton AFB in San Bernardino, where he met a builder named Rob Henley. The pair partnered to open the clubs.
Lerner combined club management with a god solid amateur career. Son Steve got good enough to forge a 10-year pro career. The Tournament House launched several pro careers, and produced the 1985 National Junior Champion – a baseball player from Rialto named Jeff Conine, who would play 17 years in the majors and win two World Series with Florida.
The club also became home to a kid named Robin Dixon, an age group champion, who is now 50 and serves as part owner and general manager. “I spent 20 years flying planes and 30 playing racquetball,” said Vance Lerner. “I couldn’t have asked for two better jobs.”
If Lerner poured his sweat into racquetball, it gave back, Lerner said when he lost his first wife, Jackie, to cancer in 1993, “I was in bad shape. This game and my two sons kept me alive. If I didn’t have this, I don’t know what I’d have done.”
Now remarried Dessie, the nursing director at Air Force Village West, Lerner is enjoying his retirement years, playing lots of golf and volunteering at an animal shelter.
He also spends a few days a week at Tournament House, still drumming up a racquetball match or two. But don’t call that retirement.