One's True Colours
In 1960, Case Ellerbroek remembers being mesmerized by a colour photograph of Al Oerter throwing the discus in front of a huge crowd at the U.S. Olympic Trials at Stanford University. Having recently completed Thorpe Saint Andrew’s School Secondary Modern in Norwich, England, and now enrolled in Norwich City College, Oerter's achievements were an inspiration to Case and his fellow track and field throwers and local rivals in the sport.
Seeing Al’s technique captured so precisely, the throwers of Norwich used the visage as a model to replicate the art of the discus throw. After earning a second gold medal in Rome, it seems that Oerter, the 2-time Olympic champion at that time, served as an icon to those who had Olympic dreams of their own.
For Case Ellerbroek, there was something more. He had seen many photos of Al Oerter from his two Olympic Games and eight years of competition, but this was the first one that was in colour. "It struck me," he said, "that this was the best photo of a discus thrower I’d ever seen. It’s almost a work of art in itself.”
Case was born in Nazi-occupied Holland, less than two months before D-Day (June 6th, 1944), and the allied invasion of Normandy. Three years later, the young Case and his family, having survived the devastation of the war, emigrated to the U.S. and settled in Seattle. Washington.
“In 1953, however, my father decided to take a job as a nurseryman that was waiting for him at his cousin's nurseries in the UK, and so we emigrated to England.” Case's father brought with him a Dutch family heritage and knowledge of cultivating, propagating and growing colourful garden plants and shrubs. He had originally come from Boskoop, which was famous for its nurseries.
By the time he entered St. Andrew’s, Case Ellerbroek had grown into a tall, dashing, athletic figure. He was a high jumper at first, and then became quite adept at the shot put and discus.
Case went on to Norwich City College in 1959 and, two years later, began a 3-year Graphics curriculum at Norwich City Art School. He would often practice throwing the shot and discus at his father’s cousin’s nurseries in Blofield. The nursery had multiple greenhouses, which doesn’t seem like the best place to be throwing wayward implements.
One day, as part of an art project, Case used the school’s Rolleiflex camera and, with his father as photographer, took pictures of himself throwing the shot in sequence in front of a greenhouse. “From there, I went into the darkroom and put two images together. In the consolidated photo there is no stop board. I took it away because I didn’t want to stumble and hit my father who was holding the camera just a few feet away.”
“As a thrower in the early 60’s, I was a pretty good junior. When I moved up to the 16lb senior shot, my progress slowed considerably.” Still, Case was determined to succeed. He started a serious weight lifting program and increased his throwing regimen to a daily ritual.
In 1964, upon completing the art program, Case was unable to find work as a graphic designer, but began a career as a technical illustrator in Norwich. Two years later he moved to London, having found a similar illustrator role with a much bigger company. He also hoped the move would help to advance his athletic career.
Case’s throwing progress in London did not keep pace and he became disheartened. That is when he met his future Israeli wife, married, and had a baby son. They lived in a small flat in London.
“Knowing that I would have to train much harder, eat much more and spend a lot of time away from the family, I decided to retire from my sporting endeavors.”
Right about this time, Al Oerter won his fourth consecutive gold medal in the Olympic Games in Mexico City. In the press room, after the medal ceremony, he announced that he was retiring from competition to spend more time raising his two young daughters. He was one gold medal short of the five he had set for himself in 1956.
While Case Ellerbroek gave up his throwing pursuits, he was now able to put all of his energy into a profession he had come to love: technical illustrating. He and his family moved to Stevenage in 1970, and then emigrated to Israel in 1981, where he still lives today. His talent, training and devotion to his art led to a long, successful career in his chosen field.
Case wrote, ”A couple of years ago I started to correspond with my old athletic rivals, and one of them sent me a black and white photograph of himself in a great throwing pose. I thought to myself, ‘It’s a pity it’s not in colour.’
“I felt that these athletes who have sacrificed so many things, in the end, would be forgotten. I wanted to change that by creating impressive colour images to remember them by.”
In his work life, Case had done some cartoons in colour and thought that he would try the technique with a shot putter-acquaintance’s old throwing photo. He worked on it continuously; spent long hours getting it exactly to his liking. “In the end, I looked at it and thought, ‘Well, that’s pretty impressive,’ even though I didn’t know why. My friend liked it too!”
One by one, Case painstakingly created illustrations of his other throwing friends and rivals from many years before in England. All were captured in living colour so that they would always be remembered. He even created a self-portrait of himself shot putting, and then printed it as a poster. “When I had done all of them, I thought, ‘Well, what should I do now?’”
Case thought back to that iconic, colour photo of Al Oerter from 1960, and remembered that almost all of the pictures of Al in Olympic competition were in black and white. “I went back to the days of my hero, Al Oerter, and started reading about him. It was then that I realized he exhibited something apart from his discus talent that transcended athletics and sport.
“And, that is, to try and keep improving despite all of the obstacles and setbacks: ‘…because, it’s the journey that counts; not the winning or the medals.’ Maybe if I would have read that in the 60’s, I wouldn’t have given up.”
Al Oerter came out of retirement in 1976 and returned to world class form with a methodical and innovative training regimen in vying for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, which was boycotted by the U.S. and other countries. He set a personal best during this time and his throws exceeded all previous distances achieved in his four Olympics. What a journey.
So, recently, Case worked on a black and white image of Oerter from the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, while in the midst of Al’s first gold medal throw. “I picked this photo,” he said, “because Al has every muscle in his body strained for that split second of maximum effort before release of the discus.”
Ellerbroek, the current illustrator, former shot putter, and discus thrower, worked on the project continuously, spending long hours getting it exactly to his liking. He now is kind enough to reveal it here for the first time in full living colour: “Quadruple Olympic Champion: Al Oerter.”
Case Ellerbroek and Al Oerter shared some parallels in their lives. They were dedicated to the throwing sports as a measurement of self-improvement. For both of them, they embraced the joy found in effort, a tenet of true Olympism. They were artists. They were men who put family first.
Case Ellerbroek celebrated his 77th birthday in April. Today, all of his illustrations are now done on a computer. He’s still working and creating and is considering offering this Al Oerter work as a poster, with different versions available.
Case began life amidst the torrent of a World War, the most devastating in our history. Today, he lives in Holon, Israel, a city on the central coastal strip, south of Tel Aviv. Last month, Holon was hit by a series of rocket attacks, something the city has been on the receiving end in the past, as well.
It seems that, despite the sepia-toned images of the past, Case Ellerbroek can transform images through the power of colour and stroke; the striking hues and tints and brightness of bold lines and subtle shadows. His affinity for colours and detail, perhaps, comes from his heritage, allowing him to renew incredible deeds once-performed, raising them to an even higher plane.
We are inspired by it. We are young again.
© 2021 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved