Champions among us: Two from McPherson participate in 2021 ATA Martial Arts World Championships

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By Jessie Wagoner


Master Rex Willems, owner of McPherson Black Belt Academy in McPherson, and one of his students, Theresa Nelson, recently competed at the 2021 ATA Martial Arts World Championships. The duo traveled to Phoenix, Ariz., for the competition and came home champions.

Willems isn’t new to world championship competitions. During his 26-year career, Willems has attended many world championship competition,s but this year was a bit different. This year, Willems not only participated in a full week of training seminars and two different tournaments, but he also took part in black belt testing.

“I successfully tested for and achieved my seventh-degree black belt,” Willems said.

Nelson is a first-degree black belt in the physical special abilities division. Nelson, who has fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis, only began training a few years ago and has already achieved her black belt. Most importantly, she has seen a significant improvement in her symptoms.

“When she started she needed a cane to help her balance,” Willems said. “She is so much stronger now; her balance has improved. She no longer needs the cane to do her forms.”

Nelson competed in seven events to start the new season, earning points for her world champion run in 2022. She claimed second place in all four traditional events and first in the three creative and extreme events she did.

“She has come so far,” Willems said. “Her progress is impressive.”

Willems brought home plenty of wins himself. The first competition he competed in was the Tournament of Champions for black belts who have competed all year to earn points for the chance to compete for the title of World Champion. The 2020 season was cut short because of COVID-19 restrictions, so this year, participants were allowed to complete the 2020 season. Of the five events Willems qualified for, he won one gold and four silver.

“This year’s gold was in the creative forms competition,” Willems said. “This bumped my 26-year career total to 20 World Champion titles, bringing my total career stats to 69 Tournament of Champion Appearances, 47 placings, 20 gold, 13 silver and 14 bronze.”

As if one tournament wasn’t enough, Willems took on a second, competing at the end of the week in the tournament that kicked off the 2022 season. This tournament was open to everyone, from white belts to eighth-degree master instructors. Willems competed in the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-degree men’s Masters 50 to 59 years old division.

“I had a great start to the new season,” Willems said. “Placing in six of my eight events, which included one gold, three silver and two bronze.”

While the competitions are fun and challenging for Willems, the real joy comes in seeing his students, like Nelson, have success in the sport. Willems himself didn’t begin his martial arts training until later in life. While he had always been interested in martial arts, he didn’t take his first class until he was 30. One class convinced him, and he was hooked. He began attending classes regularly, earning his first black belt and also training to become an instructor.

When he walked into his first class, he knew he wanted to train and become the best he could be. He had no idea where that training would lead him.

“This is my job now, my life now,” Willems said. “I just knew I wanted to do it. Back then, it wasn’t my goal to, say, be a master. But I kept moving forward, and it just happened.”

Willems has been operating McPherson Black Belt Academy for years, teaching hundreds of students. Students can begin classes at the age of three, but all ages are welcome. 

“Martial arts is for everybody,” Willems said. “All ages, all abilities—there is something for everyone.”