YARMOUTH — Every year, for as long as her teammates can remember, Birgit “Biggi” Brookes said it was the year their tennis team would go to the national championships.
This is the year, but Brookes won’t be there.
“The tragedy of this all is, she would say every year, ‘This year we’re going to nationals,'” Freeport resident Meri McArdle, captain of the Yarmouth-based team, said. “And this year we’re going and she’s not here.”
Brookes, 54, died Oct. 11 from breast cancer.
After moving to the U.S. from Germany at age 21, Brookes eventually settled in Yarmouth with her husband and two daughters. She lived in town for 20 years.
She ran a home day care and worked part time at Foreside Fitness and Tennis in Falmouth. She played on two U.S. Tennis Association teams: Net Prophets, a mixed doubles team, and the Blue Hares, a women’s team in the 40-and-older bracket that has players from throughout greater Portland.
This year the Blue Hares won the state, district and sectional championships, and will be at the nationals in Tucson, Arizona, from Oct. 23-25. The team, which has played together since 2008, has gone to the district championships frequently, but prior to this year, the farthest they’d advanced was to sectionals.
On Oct. 14, a week before the team was scheduled to fly to Tucson, her teammates sat down to talk about Brookes and how she influenced them.
“You could hear her laugh anywhere and know it’s Biggi,” Janet Bruen, of Falmouth, said. “If you had to pick one word to describe her, I think I’d pick fun.”
Like crisp net volleys, other descriptions came in rapid fire: “Joyful,” “upbeat,” “exuberant.”
“There’s no one word,” Susan Steinman, of Cape Elizabeth, said. “You need them all.”
With all the words used to describe their friend, the women all agreed one thing that was essential when describing Brookes – she loved tennis.
“For Biggi, tennis was a religion that she wanted everyone to be a part of,” Bruen said. “She was the personification of the game.”
Others agreed. Some said Brookes was the one who got them started in the sport.
“She encouraged everyone she ever met to play tennis,” McArdle said. “She just loved tennis.”
Brookes’ husband Jamie agreed. He said his wife, who started playing in her 20s, wanted everyone to try the sport that she “took extreme delight in.”
“If she met someone who said they used to play tennis or always wanted to play, she would practically recruit them on the spot,” he said.
No one on Blue Hares knew anyone else before joining the team, but they all knew Brookes. They said she was the string that tied them all together.
“She’s the mortar between all the brick,” Bruen said.
Jamie Brookes said his wife valued the friendship of her teammates, and that she enjoyed tennis because of the camaraderie.
“I wouldn’t undervalue their influence on her,” he said. “It went both ways.”
The players said their strong bond started with Brookes, but their friendship is about more than a shared interest in tennis.
“It just happened that tennis was the vehicle for us to get to this other place,” Martha Elbaum, of Falmouth, said. “Biggie transformed us (with) her love of life and not holding back.”
Brookes was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2014 and was in hospice care at the end of her life. The team said despite her illness, Brookes still played tennis all the time. They said even when she cut back her tennis schedule, she still played more than anyone else.
“She had a hard fight with a lot of treatment, but she lived a lot during that treatment,” McArdle said. “She willed herself to do a lot of stuff during those 18 months.”
Jamie Brookes said his wife stayed strong the entire time.
“She fought her cancer with the same kind of enthusiasm she had for tennis,” he said. “She was determined.”
When the team goes to nationals they’ll be wearing pink breast cancer awareness bracelets in honor of Brookes, and will also be giving bracelets to the other 16 teams as well.
“All the other teams know her, ask about her, love her,” Beth Stouder, of Falmouth, said.
Each member of the team will also honor Brookes by attempting at least one swinging volley during match play. The power move, which requires finesse, timing, and skill, was Brookes’ favorite.
“If Biggi takes a swing volley and hits at you, you duck,” McArdle said. “That ball is coming at you hard.”
Although the women said they would have played hard at nationals even if Brookes was still with them, they said they’ll now be trying even harder to win.
“No pressure, but we know we’ll need to play hard for Biggi,” McArdle said.
And Brookes will be there with them in spirit.
“You know she’ll be there,” Helen Attura, of Yarmouth, said.
“Oh, she’ll be rooting for us,” Bonnie Moran, of Windham, added.
The women said the passion and determination Brookes brought to the tennis court was something she had in all aspects of her life.
“She embraced everything with enthusiasm,” co-captain Donna DeVaudreuil, of Cumberland, said. “It wasn’t just tennis. Everything was done to the fullest, with exuberance.”
Birgit “Biggi” Brookes, fifth from left, died Oct. 11, less than two weeks before her tennis team, the Blue Hares, was scheduled to play in the national championships in Tuscon, Arizona.