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100 days of Kansas City-area Olympians: John Willems, equestrian

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Posted at 5:48 PM, May 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-04 18:48:43-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Born at Fort Leavenworth in 1901, John Willems competed in the three-day equestrian event at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

That would be the headline for most people’s obituaries, but Willems' decorated military career overshadowed his Olympic achievement.

After graduating in 1925 from the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, Willems found himself back in Kansas to train at the Fort Riley’s Calvary School six years later.

Those skills learned in the Advanced Equitation Course, which he completed in 1932, led to his inclusion on the 1936 Olympic team.

Willems was enjoying a faultless run before his horse, Slippery Slim, was injured on a controversial jump some believe the Germans intentionally set up deceptively to gain an advantage, according to historians.

Slippery Slim had to be put down.

By World War II, Willems had achieved the rank of general and participated in the North African Landings alongside Gen. George Patton, for whom he would go on to serve as Chief of Artillery and Chief of Staff of the Provisional Corps.

Willems later served as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army in Europe and was made an Honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire. He also received decorations from governments in France, Italy, Peru, Poland and Portugal.

He received a Bronze Star, Distinguished Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster and Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster during an Army career that spanned five decades from 1935 to 1961.

The Kansas City region has a deep, rich history with respect to the Olympic Games. As the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games approach with the Opening Ceremony scheduled for July 23, we will profile an athlete with ties to Kansas City, Missouri or Kansas each day.

41 Action News and KSHB.com is your home of the Tokyo Olympics. Follow our coverage at kshb.com/sports/olympics and check out our complete list of 100 Kansas City-area Olympians as it is revealed.

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