Team Talk: How Adaptive Athlete Tyler Saunders is Breaking Barriers and Defying Expectations
From semi-pro basketball player to fitness micro-influencer and now a part of the official Gymshark coaching team, Tyler Saunders’ profile is on the up and up. He’s also a regular on the UK fitness competition scene. Born with his right leg missing from the hip, his path to elite sporting achievement hasn’t been without obstacles. But if there’s one thing Saunders lives for, it’s a challenge. He talks to MH about fighting for inclusivity and breaking free of your comfort zone.
Men's Health: Alongside your job as a personal trainer, you’re also a wheelchair basketball athlete. Was sport a big part of your life growing up?
Tyler Saunders: I enjoyed taking part in physical activity at school, but I couldn’t always keep up with sports. With football being the big sport in the England… due to my limited functionality I couldn’t really take part as much as I wanted to, and I ended up in goal a lot of the time, which was soul-destroying as a kid.
Then I discovered basketball, which I took to because a lot of it’s played with your hands. It was just playground basketball, having fun, not taking it too seriously. I was included in the school team, but again, I didn’t get many minutes, as I wasn’t able to keep up with the flow of the game. So that didn’t do much for my confidence.
I wasn’t really encouraged to do sport by my parents, through no fault of theirs. So, it wasn’t a big part of my life growing up. A lot of people might think I’ve always been into sport and fitness, but that’s not the case.
I also wore a prosthetic leg until I was about 23. [Saunders was born with his right leg missing from the hip.] I had a partner at the time who asked me, ‘Why do you wear the leg if it causes you so much discomfort?’ I’d always worn it to fit in and look like everyone else. After that, I took to using crutches because it was more comfortable, and I got over the idea that everyone was going to look at me. Eventually, it became my identity: I was the one-legged guy who got around very easily.
MH: How did things change when you discovered wheelchair basketball?
TS: That was my first proper introduction to sport. It exposed me to other people with disabilities. Back then, I didn’t really know anyone else who had a disability. I didn’t pursue wheelchair basketball initially because of my studies, university, all of that. But I got back into the sport in my late twenties and that’s when my fitness journey really started.
MH: You earned a spot on the GB Paralympic development squad, which must have been fairly demanding.
TS: Yes. That increased the amount of activity I was doing ten-fold. Being around individuals at the top of their game rubbed off on me.
After that, I went to Germany to play semi-pro. I was living the athlete’s life: just training and playing. That’s when I really started to see changes in my fitness and body composition. My nutritional habits improved, I started tracking my food intake and I got more clued up.
MH: How did you make the transition to personal training?
TS: I decided to qualify as a PT when I got back. Prior to Germany, I was working part-time in an administrative role. My eating habits were horrendous. I was still living the student life, only with adult responsibilities. I thought, I can’t go back to doing an office job and not fuelling my body properly, staying up too late, not moving enough.
A position at Pure Gym cropped up on a job search. I thought it looked interesting, but my own limiting beliefs made me wonder if I could do it. The fitness industry is driven by vanity metrics and how good you are at physical feats, but a part of me thought, just give it a go and see what happens. I went into my first job immediately after qualifying.
MH: You have a big social media following now. Was building your profile always part of the plan?
TS: No. One day I was just recording myself doing an upper-body workout. There was no strategy behind it, I wasn’t even trying to win new clients. It was a bit of fun. Somebody local who owns a video production company saw it. He contacted me and said, ‘Mate, you’re doing some inspiring things. Let’s help each other out.’ He helped me build my profile. I had an organic 4.5k followers, but over two years it jumped up into double digits.
My appearance on Ninja Warrior [in 2018] helped. I can’t remember the exact figures, but the influx of messages, DMs and supportive comments was overwhelming – and really humbling.
MH: You clearly enjoy putting your fitness to the test. Aside from Ninja Warrior, you’ve tackled events such as Hyrox, Spartan Race and National Fitness Games. What sparked your love of competing?
TS: National Fitness Games was the first one. Prior to that, I’d seen Turf Games, and a lot of people I followed on the London fitness scene did that. But, at the time, it looked a bit too intimidating – lots of technical lifts, really only for an elite few. But the National Fitness Games ethos was more about the everyday athlete, nothing technical, low-skill work.
I got the opportunity to compete in a team of four as an ambassador for [sports nutrition brand] MaxiNutrition, who were one of the event sponsors. And as hard as it was, it was just fun. In a team, you all chip in and take a bit of the workload.
After that event, I thought, okay, that was fun. I liked pushing myself, I didn’t die. And I caught the event bug.
MH: Have you come across any challenges when competing alongside athletes without physical impairments at these big team events?
TS: It’s been fairly straightforward. I’ve kind of just rocked up. As adaptive athletes or athletes with impairments, we don’t want a completely different workout. You want to do what everyone else is doing and just tweak a couple of things – scale the weights, slightly modify the movements. For me, I’ve gone in and done pretty much the same thing [as the other athletes]. I might just use one kettlebell instead of two.
MH: There must be a lot of aspiring athletes who’d love to compete in these events, but don’t realise that they can request modifications.
TS: Yeah. And if people see me do it, an amputee might see me and think, ‘Cool, he’s giving it a go, maybe I can.’ Whether it’s a wheelchair user or someone who’s visually impaired, there’s better representation now and more confidence in terms of our community’s ability to join in with these events. It’s not necessarily about changing everything for us, just making little tweaks to make the events more inclusive.
At the end of the day, that’s what fitness is meant to be. You know, it’s a big word now – everyone’s really big on inclusion and accessibility. I like to think I’ve helped that along, just by turning up and sometimes being the only person with an impairment at the event.
MH: What’s an average workday look like for you now?
I’m in a private studio, which is geared towards functional fitness. Around training clients, I’m also building an online programme, which is taking some extra work.
Then I go home and put on my ‘dad hat’. I have two daughters, who are five and six. And I’ve got basketball training once a week.
I’ve also started a new role as a Gymshark Pro at their store on Regent’s Street. It’s a fitness coach and instructor role. I’m really excited about that. They do classes there and they have one-to-one PT slots that the public can book – introductory sessions in 25-minute blocks.
Gymshark reached out to me initially in 2021. They had a new range of clothing called Apex, and I did a three-month stint with them when they were doing their campaign billboards for the shop. So, I had my face plastered on the storefront.
With it being such a big platform, I can hopefully encourage greater inclusivity and fitness being for all abilities. They’re quite big on that as well, which is good.
MH: And if that wasn’t enough to keep you busy, you recently launched a podcast, Challenge Accepted.
TS: I’d already been on a fair few podcasts myself, people asking me on to tell my story. And as good as that’s been, I’m not naturally good at talking about myself. So I thought I’d flip it and find people who’d also been through challenges or faced obstacles in their lives, and let them tell their stories. A lot of time they’re doing positive things, trying to bring about change.
Part of me has this limiting belief that I couldn’t do a podcast or wouldn’t be good at it. So, a lot of it was about challenging my own beliefs. But it’s also about giving people a platform to talk about how they’ve overcome their struggles, and helping my audience face the things they’re going through as well. But it is a lot of work.
The recording is the easy bit, it’s the post-production and sending it off for mastering and finding clips to put on social… I don’t know if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, but my goal is to get to 15 episodes. That’s kind of a milestone in podcasting: if you get past 15, I think, you’re in the top 10% of podcasts, because everyone gives up at 10 episodes.
MH: With this many plates to spin, how and when do you fit in your own training?
TS: I schedule workouts into the free spaces in my day. Luckily, I’m already in the gym. If I’ve got an hour and a half that’s free, I’ll just schedule it in as workout time.
I’m currently following an adaptive CrossFit programme by a company called WheelWOD. It’s a five-day-a-week training programme, but to be honest I don’t always hit all five days. I just try not to skip two days on the trot.
I’ve written my own programmes before. But you only have so much bandwidth. If you can offload or delegate to someone who’s arguably better at it than you, do it.
MHL What’s your next big goal?
TS: I’m doing Hyrox in May and I’ve set myself the goal of doing the whole event without my wheelchair. I normally do the running part [1km runs between functional fitness challenges] in my basketball chair, which allows me to maintain a good pace and get around the track pretty fast. But, as I’ve competed at more events, I’ve wondered, how hard can I push myself? Can I do the 1km runs on my crutches? It’ll be tough… my arms will blow up, I’m going to be in a world of pain! But I’ve done endurance events before and it hasn’t killed me.
MH: What’s been your toughest fitness challenge to date?
TS: I did the SAS Fan Dance last year, which is the selection process for recruits. I didn’t do it with all of their protocols, carrying the Bergen bag. But trekking up and down the Brecon Beacons was really hard work. I think it took me about five hours.
But now I can always dip back into that memory and think, okay, I did that, that was the hardest thing I’ve done. Hyrox isn’t going to take my five hours. But I got through event one, I’ll get through this one.
A lot of these things I’m doing… yes, there’s an enjoyment aspect, but it’s also about challenging that limiting belief that I have from being a kid. ‘You’re not fit enough, you’re not strong enough, fast enough, good enough.’ That’s really what makes me throw myself into these difficult and uncomfortable events.
MH: Do you have any other ambitions for the coming year?
TS: I’m turning some of my attention to helping other people in my community, people with lower-limb impairments. That’s something I’m going to try and just see what happens.
With me having a visible disability and being in the fitness space, I’m hoping it will inspire other people with disabilities, who might have thought they don’t have a space in the industry, to take that first step. Because fitness should be for everyone. There is a little bit more of a shift towards people feeling more confident to follow their dreams or passions in the industry. But it would be great if there was better representation.
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