By Bill Bruton
Published August 11, 2023
Panayotis Thanos, PhD, senior research scientist in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, only knew of John Tyler as a student researcher in his lab when Tyler asked him for some time off in May.
“It was right before finals, and John comes to me and says, ‘is it OK if I don’t come in? I’ve got a competition to go to. I said ‘Of course. By the way, what kind of competition is it?’” Thanos says.
That’s when Tyler revealed that he is the U.S. national powerlifting champion, and that he was going to representi the U.S. at the International Powerlifting Federation World Championships in Sun City, South Africa.
“I couldn’t believe it. He’s such a soft-spoken person, and very humble,” Thanos adds.
Tyler, who earned his Bachelor of Science degree in biomedical sciences from the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences in May, is a three-time U.S. powerlifting champion. The Watertown, New York, native is also an excellent student and researcher with a passion for addiction medicine who graduated with a 3.94 grade point average and dreams of one day becoming a physician.
“A lot of my undergraduate research and volunteer work has focused on improving care for people with substance use disorder. In my freshman year, I started working in an addiction clinic. That’s really when it hit home because I saw people I knew, people in my community, suffering from this epidemic,” Tyler says, noting that his hometown is in a region of New York State with some of the highest overdose rates in the state. “I vowed to be a part of the solution and now I’m working with Dr. Thanos studying addiction medicine.”
“My research combines two areas that I’m very passionate about — addiction medicine and sports medicine. Addiction medicine is very close to my heart because where I’m from has one of the highest overdose rates in all of New York State,” Tyler says. “My passion for sports medicine dates back to before middle school, when I first started competing and getting into it. Now I do personal training and give lectures on it. It brings together both of those passions of mine.”
Tyler is very interested in the role that exercise can play in helping those suffering from addiction.
“Exercise is a great way to treat addiction because it’s a holistic approach, and it’s an adjunct treatment. One of the big problems with addiction that I see is there really isn’t a great way to treat it, and a lot of the treatment that’s out there isn’t affordable,” Tyler says. “And the people that are affected by it tend to be underrepresented people, impoverished people, and they can’t afford access to treatment. But exercise — anybody can afford that. You can even do exercise without any equipment.”
A wonder non-drug, if you will.
“It all comes down to the modulation of dopamine. That’s a big buzzword right now. Dopamine plays a major role in the reward pathway, which is where you get addiction,” Tyler says. “When you positively modulate dopamine, you can help improve numerous diseases. Exercise is helpful for anxiety, depression, substance abuse, Alzheimer’s disease. Really, for almost any mental disorder out there, exercise is helpful.”
His interests turned out to coincide with a project Thanos was working on. It turned out to be a good fit.
“We gave him different types of training in the lab, and he really excelled. He did a fantastic job, not only in terms of learning those techniques, but also applying those techniques in the research project from the beginning, all the way to collecting the results, and then writing up those results in a peer-reviewed journal,” Thanos says.
“I’m very happy for John, because he’s worked very hard on the research. He’s already first author on one published article, and he’s first author on a second article that’s in review at a high impact journal at Frontiers. And he’s involved in a third project remotely right now,” Thanos adds. “He’s extremely enthusiastic about doing research on exercise and exercise neuroscience. I’m really grateful to have the opportunity to collaborate with a student like him.”
Tyler found his way to powerlifting in a roundabout way. He started lifting to build strength for wrestling.
He was a three-time regional champion in wrestling while at Immaculate Heart High School in Watertown, and once finished third in the state.
Then he was diagnosed with severe Osgood-Schlatter disease, which is inflammation below the knee where the patellar tendon from the kneecap attaches to the tibia in adolescents.
“It got to the point where I couldn’t wrestle any more. The sports medicine specialist said I needed to quit. So, I started doing rehabilitation, and that’s really where I got into lifting. Through sports medicine and rehab, I found my passion for lifting,” Tyler says.
By the time he was 15, he had broken the state deadlift record for his age and weight class.
“After that, I just stuck with it,” Tyler says. “Now I have three national records.”
Just being able to compete at the International Powerlifting Federation World Championships turned out to be quite the journey.
“Three months out, I came down with a low-grade supraspinatus tear,” says Tyler. That’s where a tear of the tendon of the supraspinatus muscle — a part of the rotator cuff of the shoulder — tears. So, Tyler ended up back in rehab.
“Then a week out, somebody broke into my car and stole all my gym gear — my singlet, my uniform, everything I needed to compete. A bunch of my buddies helped me gather gym gear, and uniforms and other items so that I could still compete at worlds.”
After a 32-hour flight to South Africa, he had more struggles to deal with.
“The day before the competition I came down with gastroenteritis — really bad food poisoning. I lost over seven pounds in a day, and I weighed in the lightest out of the top five in my weight bracket,” Tyler says. “I weighed in 10 pounds less than I was supposed to weigh in at.”
His weight group is 205 pounds (93 kilograms), and he weighed in at 195 pounds.
The final setback occurred when he was in the bathroom dealing with the food poisoning prior to the competition. At that point, he had been told he had an hour before he had to compete.
“Then my coach comes running in saying ‘get your butt out here, you have 10 minutes to warm up!!’ They had changed the flights around and the world coaches didn’t know it,” Tyler says. “So, I ended up having 10 minutes to get ready and warm up.”
Despite all those setbacks, he still won the bronze medal.
“I was predicted to take first. The guy who ended up finishing first (Axel Samuelsson of Sweden) put up 195 kilograms (429.9 pounds). My last competition before that I put up 197.5 kilos (435.4 pounds), and that was unpeaked,” Tyler says. “When you prepare for a competition you peak for it, so that should bring your numbers up even more. I was shooting for 200 to 205 kilos (441 to 452 pounds). All those setbacks brought me back a little, but I still made it on to the podium and represented Buffalo and the U.S.A.”
Next year, the worlds are in Texas.
“That will be a lot easier, a six-hour flight instead of 32,” Tyler says. “I’m definitely going to be a lot more cautious so I don’t pick up some illness along the way.”
Tyler hopes to continue to compete at a world class level while balancing medical school coursework in the future.
“He is a very intelligent young man who also has the capability of working well with others. Everybody enjoys working with John, and he is very much a team player,” Thanos says.
“He possesses a lot of the skills that a physician needs. In addition to his intelligence and his ability to communicate and relate with people, he’s definitely easygoing. Those are all traits that are very valuable in medicine, and I’m sure he’ll do very well as a physician someday,” Thanos adds.
“Being a physician is definitely my calling in life. It’s what I’m most passionate about,” says Tyler, 22, who is in the process of applying to medical school.