Powerlifting: River Falls’ fastest-growing high school sport

By Reagan Hoverman
Posted 3/23/23

When Ulice Payne III began working as a personal trainer in downtown River Falls in 2017, he had no idea that less than five years later he’d be the head coach of a team competing in one of the …

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Powerlifting: River Falls’ fastest-growing high school sport


When Ulice Payne III began working as a personal trainer in downtown River Falls in 2017, he had no idea that less than five years later he’d be the head coach of a team competing in one of the fastest-growing sports in Wisconsin.

Whether it was fate or just good fortune, when Payne III accepted the personal training position at a gym in River Falls, it served as the genesis for his eventual coaching career with the River Falls powerlifting club.

Throughout the first several months of his new position as a personal trainer, Payne III built a clientele that included River Falls students, parents and community members alike that wanted to improve their strength and overall fitness.

Through those interactions, Payne III discovered the River Falls powerlifting team and its desire for year-round training so that student-athletes could realize their potential – whether they wanted to specialize in powerlifting or simply use it to improve overall athleticism.

Within that first year, Payne III had built a reputation in River Falls as a promising young personal trainer that not only worked well with kids and adults but had coaching potential, as recognized by the River Falls powerlifting club board of directors.

“Within that first year I was approached to be an assistant coach on the powerlifting team,” Payne III said. “I was very ecstatic about it. If it wasn’t for powerlifting, it definitely wouldn’t have set me on the path that I’m on now. This sport was the precursor that started it all for me.”

Payne III instantly brought an additional level of powerlifting credibility to an already talented River Falls coaching staff.

During his senior year at Whitnall High School in 2011, Payne III took second place in the USA Powerlifting (USAPL) contest. After graduating high school, Payne III continued to compete in the powerlifting arena while earning his four-year degree at the University of St. Thomas.

By the time he became the head coach at River Falls, Payne III brought more than a decade of real-world strongman and powerlifting experience to a rapidly growing sport in western Wisconsin. He spoke about his first two seasons as the headman of the program.

“It’s been fantastic, but the number one thing is that you can’t do it alone,” Payne III said. “We have a board of parents that organizes the team. I have so much respect for the parents that help out and put a lot of time and effort into making sure this team is a success. The same goes with my assistant coaches, I’ve always had full faith in them working with the kids and it shows.”

This season, the Wildcats’ powerlifting team included more than 65 coed student-athletes ranging in age from sixth grade to senior. Because powerlifting isn’t a WIAA-affiliated sport, River Falls competed in the Wisconsin High School Powerlifting Association (WHSPA).

The WHSPA designates the high school powerlifting season from November through March. It’s home to half a dozen regions throughout Wisconsin that determine where teams compete. River Falls is in region five, which is one of the largest in the state.

Throughout the season, the Wildcats regularly competed against area schools including Hudson, New Richmond, Osceola and Elk Mound. Powerlifting has become so popular in recent years that as many as 500 kids compete in a single meet on any given day in western Wisconsin.

“Schools including ourselves host meets throughout the season,” Payne III said. “This year was the biggest we’ve had in popularity. We had between 400 and 500 kids competing at every meet. We all had to work together to make it happen. New Richmond alone has 120 kids a year. They have a fantastic program.”

Throughout the 2022-23 season, the River Falls powerlifting team honed its skills leading up to the WHSPA state meet in Appleton on March 4 and March 5.

The Wildcats’ top finishers included Tim Story, who took third in the 148-pound weight class, Anthony Moelter who finished third in the 165-pound bracket and Colton Christenson, who secured a fourth-place finish at 181 pounds.

After finishing the state meet at the beginning of March – the final event of the high school season – eight River Falls powerlifters had qualified for the USAPL Nationals, which will be in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, at the end of March.

To make it to the national level, high school powerlifters can qualify in a variety of ways. Some qualify through performance at the state meet, but most participate in open competitions outside of the high school season which provides multiple opportunities for the athletes.

“To qualify, you have to do it either at the state competition or find another competition outside of the regular season to compete at,” Payne III said. “We have kids compete year-round at open powerlifting meets in Wisconsin and Minnesota, that way they don’t have to do it at state.”

Payne III detailed that he typically guides his student-athletes to qualify outside of state so that they don’t have everything riding on one performance. Instead, they can go to the annual state competition and have fun without such high stakes riding on one afternoon.

Since taking over the program last season, Payne III has continued to expedite the growth of one of Wisconsin’s fastest-growing sports. He spoke about the joy of coaching young athletes.

“This is the stuff that I truly have a passion for,” Payne III said. “If I can help a group of kids who enjoy it just as much, if I can help them find their path and find the enjoyment of it, that’s the least I could do.”

Payne III and the River Falls powerlifting team will be competing in the USAPL Nationals at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center in South Carolina starting on March 30.

River Falls, Wildcats, Powerlifting, USAPL, WHSPA