Just turned 34 – happy birthday – Lionel Sanders is one of the best triathletes in the sport. Alongside that, in a world where athlete engagement, storytelling and creating narratives are the buzzwords of the time (with the PTO, SLT, Sub7Sub8 and others building business strategies around it), ‘No Limits’ is already ahead of the game.
He’s also one of the most interesting case studies.
Love him or hate him, inspired or frustrated by, believe in him or not – the bottom line is that you will watch and follow. As I’ve said many times, Lionel Sanders is pure box office gold for the sport of triathlon.
The backstory is well known – the addictions, depression, the dark times – but there is more to Sanders than the ‘back from the brink’ history. He is a brilliant athlete.
For an adult-onset swimmer, someone who seemingly fights his bike and easily the most ‘distinctive’ running style / limp of any top professional, his palmarès is the envy of many. He’s won so many IRONMAN 70.3 events that I couldn’t attempt to even put a figure on it with any confidence. 25? 30? Maybe even more.
Also a winner of multiple IRONMAN races, he became ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Champion in 2017 (despite fixing a puncture mid-race), has been part of legendary battles (and Tri Battles…) and finished second in Kona at the 2017 IRONMAN World Championship.
He has the respect of his peers too. Jan Frodeno told me of Lionel last year:
“There’s so much talk goes on before race day… which frankly I just don’t care about. I’m just appreciative of somebody who delivers on race day, whether they proclaim that the day before or not. I love racing, and what I do love about Lionel is that he’s always looking to put himself out there and give it his all, and that’s all you can ask for.”
“I don’t know what I have to do to beat this man. I think he’s the only one that could beat himself I guess… usually at some point people tend to break, they don’t want to have the pain any more, but he just seems to f&*&ing enjoy it. I don’t know what I have to do.”
But… can Sanders contend for the prize he wants, to become IRONMAN World Champion?
Having said all that… will Sanders remain the proverbial bridesmaid at the very top tables? As welcome as the respect from the likes of Frodeno and Kienle are, that duo already have eight IRONMAN and IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship titles between them.
Eight years after finishing fourth at the 70.3 World Champs, Sanders is in his ‘First Season as a Fully Coached Athlete‘.
This stuff, perhaps, matters. There is a long and very consistent trend for IRONMAN World Championship winners.
- You do your first race and (typically), it doesn’t go to plan. That tends to be repeated for several years (see Mark Allen / Chris McCormack / Pete Jacobs / Frederik Van Lierde), before you crack the code, and make the podium. And that, typically, is the time to strike. Usually 12 months later – that window from podium to winner is a short one if you follow the trends.
- If you are particularly skilled / talented / fortunate (Craig Alexander / Jan Frodeno / Sebastian Kienle / Patrick Lange as examples), you might short-cut that process by reaching the podium at the first attempt – but the same logic applies. All of those athletes won at their second attempt, 12 months later.
A picture can sometimes paint a thousand words – here’s what I mean – look at the history of first-time winners in Hawaii. It’s pretty striking, right?
Deja Vu. Again…
Five years ago, Lionel finished second in Hawaii. It was a brilliant performance – I got to see it in person – beaten only by a course record from Patrick Lange. With Coach David Tilbury-Davis advising him, after finishing 14th and 29th in his first two attempts, the script was being followed, the Kona code seemingly unlocked.
Less than 1% away from the top step, and with the history I outlined above well known… and then he goes and changes everything. Cuts ties with his advisor, radically alters bike position, changes approach to training, diet and more… and finishes 28th. A year later – 22nd – and a familiar post-race self analysis of ‘things have to change!’
It’s truly been an emotional and frustrating journey at times… and that’s just for those of us glued to his transparency along the way. Back to that earlier ‘box office’ comment.
Fight the good fight
On a frequent basis, we’ve often used fight-game analogies on the site. We certainly have some Boxing fans on the TRI247 editorial team, myself included, but perhaps there are some parallels here too?
First off, I don’t think anyone would argue that Sanders is a ‘fighter’. Check out those quotes from the German legends – or bringing himself back from the depths of his younger days. Win, lose or draw, you always get value from a Sanders race.
In Boxing parlance, he is a ‘Pay Per View fighter’. I’ve had many an interview with Lionel, referencing ‘racing angry’ and using that as motivation for performance. Wherever and whatever he races, people are interested. We know, we have 10 years of analytics…
What can also happen with ‘fighters’ is searching for more. Looking for ‘different’, something new, and regularly switching approaches and trainers. Is the grass greener on the other side? Perhaps, perhaps not. Does losing a ‘fight’ mean the preparations were wrong?
One thing that absolutely IS central to Boxing and fight sports generally is money. It is ‘prize fighting’ after all. It’s there, front and centre, and the hype around a fight is as much about who gets what, as who wins.
Triathlon is making significant moves towards increasing the professionalism of the sport – PTO, Super League and others – and of course, we certainly hope, the rewards that these stars deserve.
I know that Lionel’s absolute focus is to win the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona – but we hope he collects his rewards along the way too. An athlete’s life can be short, and as Chris McCormack regularly reminded athletes, “you are a business, not just an athlete.”
Oscar De La Hoya, ‘The Golden Boy’ was one of the icons of Boxing for 15 years. Colourful, controversial – and at times also troubled – De La Hoya was one of the most successful fighters of his generation, generating hundreds of million dollars along the way. He also lost a good portion of his biggest fights, while working his way from trainer to trainer… but his place in the Boxing Hall of Fame is fixed.
Can the Colonel become Kona King?
So what now – have things changed? Will the link-up with Coach Mikal Iden be prove to be the ‘secret sauce’ that he’s been searching for… or simply latest edition in the compelling sporting drama that is Lionel Sanders?
Honestly… I haven’t a clue.
Like me however, I bet you’ll keep watching to find out how this drama plays out, whether you are fan or not, because Sanders delivers value.
To paraphrase UFC fighter, Conor McGregor:
“This week they love you, next one they hate you. Just be sure you get paid both weeks”