The tension was thick inside the Cobb Civic Center as West Hall grad Willie Ellison prepared for his final lift of the 2020 Southeast Regional Special Olympics powerlifting meet. Ellison had already suffered a technical fault on his first attempt at the deadlift, but after successfully hitting 450 pounds on his second try, Ellison’s coach, Travis Raley, knew it was time to take a risk.
“Willie, let’s just go for a personal record,” he said. “Let’s go for 501 (pounds).”
“You sure coach?” Ellison responded.
Raley had already seen Ellison hit 500 a couple of times in the weight room, so he didn’t have to feign confidence as he hyped Ellison up for his biggest lift of the year.
“Yeah,” Raley said. “You got this man.”
With all his supporters and fellow competitors watching and cheering him on, Ellison proved Raley right.
With his 501-pound deadlift at the Southeast Regional on Jan. 11 — along with a 375-pound squat and 250-pound bench press — Ellison placed first in every category in the 120 kilogram weight class, bringing home gold for all three lifts as well as the overall gold for the second consecutive year at the event.
After letting the bar fall to the ground, he let out a yell of triumph that put a satisfying punctuation mark on the last two years of intensive weight training. Ellison has been among the most dominant Special Olympics powerlifters in the southeast region over that span.
“It felt great,” he said of the accomplishment. “Awesome. Everybody was cheering me on. It was a lot of relief, and I was so happy.”
Ellison has been heavily invested in athletics since he started playing football in seventh grade. He played for the Spartans for all four of his high school years, joining the team as a freshman and invigorating the locker room with overwhelming positivity from the get-go.
Ellison’s presence on the sideline was an inspiration to everyone involved with the West Hall football program, all the way up to head coach Krofton Montgomery.
“When you’re struggling in some games, and then you look over and Willie’s saying ‘We’ll get ‘em next time coach,’ with a big smile on his face, it helps you look and see the positivity in things,” Montgomery said. “This kid’s got total belief. That’s a great, great characteristic. I don’t know how that comes to be, because there are all kinds of people in this world who don’t have that, but he has it. He’s just a bright ray of sunshine.”
Ellison’s positivity on game nights was matched by his lifting ability in the weight room, a trait that Raley recognized immediately when he was hired as West Hall’s strength and conditioning coach two years ago. Ellison was a senior then, and Raley knew that while Ellison’s football career was coming to a close, his future in powerlifting was only just beginning.
With the help and support of Raley and West Hall special education teacher and Special Olympics coach Lauren Johnson, Ellison made his debut in powerlifting at last year’s Southeast Regional. When he won all four gold medals at that event, Raley knew he had a serious competitor on his hands.
“After we learned kind of what to expect with that meet, then we started training for real,” Raley said.
Success has followed Ellison every step of the way, a welcome sight to his many supporters around the West Hall community.
Though he graduated last year, Ellison served as West Hall’s football manager this past fall, and can often be found at events put on by the school. He’s picked up a reputation as one of the Spartans’ most beloved supporters along the way.
“Everybody that’s been around him, whether it be athletics, in the school building, at a basketball game, a track meet, wherever you may run into him, he just brings out the best in people,” Montgomery said. “He’s just a good kid. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like him. It’s impossible.”
It’s a trend that Ellison’s grandfather, Michael Wilcoxson, has noticed as well.
Wilcoxson said that athletics were an outlet for Ellison’s more sociable side to break through during his formative years, adding that Ellison has become “more sure of himself” since he got into football in middle school.
The support Ellison received from West Hall supporters regularly on game days was a welcome surprise.
“It amazes me at times,” Wilcoxson said. “We’ll be at a game, and everybody is like, ‘Willie! Willie! Hey Willie!’ Just everybody. Boys, girls, kids. ‘Hey Willie!’ I’ll just be like ‘Wow.’”
Looking ahead, Ellison hopes to one day compete at the national level.
It’s a lofty goal, but one that Raley sees as attainable considering his dominance at the last two regionals. And the duo’s aspirations don’t stop there.
“Even beyond (nationals), looking big picture, if you do well there, then you can compete in worlds one day,” Raley said.
Ellison still has a long way to go in his powerlifting career, and many more milestones to achieve. But no matter what he pursues in his future, he will always have the entire backing of the West Hall community.
“When I see Willie walk into the weight room, he picks me up,” Raley said. “He just has that special ability. Everyone I’ve ever met that knows Willie says the same thing about him. He’s just a joy to be around.”