Canadian Lionel Sanders broke onto the professional triathlon scene in 2013 when he won the Ironman 70.3 Muskoka in a whopping 6:30 against none other than two-time Kona runner-up Andreas Raelert. The following year he would capture his first Ironman title in Florida and really come into his own a year later with four 70.3 titles and a big win at Ironman Arizona.
Though Sanders is yet to win the Ironman World Championship, he has finished second twice — in Kona in 2017 and in St. George earlier this month. Although his only world title is the World Triathlon Long Distance Championship, which he won in Penticton in 2017, Sanders is one of the most beloved figures in our sport. Here’s why:
See also: 5 Keys to Lionel Sanders’ Success at St. George
He often comes second (yes, we know he often wins too)
For those of you old enough to remember, one of the greatest rivalries in golf of all time was that between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Nicklaus won more tournaments and majors (73 PGA titles and 18 majors to Palmer’s 62 and seven), but while Nicklaus was always considered the sport’s greatest player (at the time), Palmer was the most popular. “Jack had the trophies that Arnold wanted, but Jack didn’t have the love of the fans that Arnold had,” said Ian O’Connor, the author of Arnie and Jack said golfchannel.com.
Sanders has won a lot — he’s won 27 half-distance races over the years, along with four full-distance titles — but he’s not had nearly the same success at the sport’s big titles. It could be argued that after a string of defeats, he’s also become much more popular. Last year he started a tear of second places that have made him triathlon fans around the world. After collapsing at the Ironman Coeur d’Alene, he bounced back and finished second to Jan Frodeno at the Tri Battle Royale (yes, we know there were only two athletes in the race, but he still lapped a PB with a 7:43 finish) , second to Cam Lassen at Ironman Copenhagen, second to Joe Skipper at Ironman Chattanooga, and then second again to Gustav Iden at Ironman Florida. This year there was the miraculous second place finish at Ironman 70.3 Oceanside and then the St. George finish.
After all of this, fans can’t help but wish that the guy could finally hit a big win.
His YouTube channel
With 145,000 subscribers, the Talbot Cox-produced Sanders YouTube channel routinely pumps out videos that often garner over 100,000 views. His post-race reviews are traditionally impromptu and he has no qualms about criticizing himself. The popularity of the videos no doubt also helps him keep his sponsors happy.
He makes mistakes… but stands by them
Over the years, Sanders has done some questionable things. In his first race in Kona, he competed on a water-filled Camelback, which negated many of the aerodynamic advantages he could have enjoyed on the bike. A few weeks after his second-place finish in Kona, he fired his then-coach David Tilbury-Davis. Sanders would rehire Tilbury-Davis as an advisor about a year later.
Sanders is the first to admit that he finds it difficult not to push himself to the limit in training and racing and that he can, to use his own word, be “stubborn” and have to learn things the hard way.
“I’m one of those people who has to learn, and I get it hammered into my head a lot… I don’t know why I don’t learn,” he said. “I have to make a lot of mistakes. I’m fighting myself and my desire to destroy myself early on.”
“Extremes are my thing, but I’m starting to understand my personality after doing it for 12 years, and I put in safety valves to make sure my tendencies don’t come out,” he said.
Related: There’s nothing to be nervous about
He is merciful in defeat
Winning or losing, he always has a lot of praise for his competitors after a race. He recently helped raise money and awareness for the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) through his participation in the Professional Triathletes Organization’s Pro-Am race, also part of the Herbalife24 Triathlon Los Angeles.
“The importance of this relay was to highlight the many CAF athletes who embody the true meaning of #nolimits,” he said after the race.
He does not give up
Over the years, Sanders has been involved in some of the most exciting races the sport has ever seen. Be it his epic duels with Sebastian Kienle at the championship, sprinting to the finish at the Ironman 70.3 North American Championship in St. George last May, his sprint to second place at Ironman 70.3 Oceanside in April and then back into St. George most recently Month where he passed Braden Currie in the last few hundred yards to finish second at St George.
While those sprints to the finish line are exciting, Sanders’ biggest struggles don’t always make sense, but they’ve earned him respect. Last year in Coeur d’Alene, Sanders no longer looked like he was in contention for victory, having to walk much of the final 30km of the marathon. In Kona, too, he struggled several times to finish.
“No Limits,” the slogan promoted by Lionel Sanders, always sounds good until you push yourself past that point. When you’re running the final half of an Ironman event and you’re as famous as Sanders, you’ll hear more than a few “No Limits” comments.
“People make fun of me when I leave,” Sanders said during the press conference in St. George. Two-time Olympic gold medalist Alistair Brownlee said he ran a majority of the marathon alongside Sanders in Kona a few years ago – he thought hearing the athletes poking fun at Sanders made the ordeal a little more “entertaining”. .