Mr ‘No Limits’ Lionel Sanders is one of the most well-known, and respected, triathletes on the long-distance circuit.
Born in Windsor, Onatrio, Canada in February 1988, Sanders is one of the most social-media savvy athletes in the sport running a highly popular YouTube channel alongside his sporting exploits.
The 2017 ITU Long Distance World Champion and IRONMAN World Championship silver medalist, Lionel has a ‘never give up’ mentality and has overcome a number of obstacles in his career to date to reach the pinnacle of the sport.
Prior to his professional career, Sanders battled addiction – a topic he has openly talked about during his time on the long-distance circuit:
“I want to prove to anyone who has ever battled addiction that not only can you beat it, but you can turn yourself into something great in the process,” he once stated in an in-depth interview with the Hamilton Spectator.
In fact, it was those much-publicised troubles which spurred Lionel to sign up for his first IRONMAN at Louisville in 2010, where he finished in a time of 10:14:31. That performance piqued the interest of Canadian coach Barrie Shepley, who worked with Sanders in the early stages of his career.
Since then, Lionel has gone from strength to strength in becoming a regular podium presence over both the middle distance and the full distance.
Career record and results
Lionel began his professional career at the age of 25 in late 2013 and instantly took to the middle distance, winning IRONMAN 70.3 Muskoka on his pro debut. Finishing more than six minutes clear of Germany’s Andreas Raelert, a multiple IRONMAN World Championship podium finisher, certainly gained some headlines.
Sanders continued that form into 2014 with 70.3 wins at Muncie, Racine and Steelhead before finishing in fourth place at the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship in behind Javier Gomez, Jan Frodeno and Tim Don. Of particular note, Sanders was the slowest swimmer that day – and the final gap to winner Gomez was exactly the same as his swim deficit.
Sanders would go on to win on his full-distance debut later in 2014 with a victory at IRONMAN Florida – although he did benefit from the cancellation of the swim, his least favoured discipline.
2015 brought further success on the IRONMAN circuit in the shape of wins at 70.3 Texas, 70.3 Mont Tremblant, 70.3 Muskoka. 70.3 Racine and over the full distance in Arizona. He also finished 14th on his IRONMAN World Championship debut in Kona, Hawaii.
Five successive 70.3 victories in early 2016 – Panama, California, Texas, St George and Mont Tremblant – were followed by second-place finishes at Racine and Wiesbaden in Germany. Ninth place at the 70.3 World Championship was followed by 29th in Kona – this despite shaving four minutes off his 2015 time.
Lionel ended 2016 with another IRONMAN Arizona triumph, a race he saw as redemption after the frustration of that result on the ‘Big Island’.
His success continued in 2017 with five further wins over the half-distance – Pucon, Buenos Aires, California, Challenge Samorin and Mont Tremblant – before his ITU Long Distance world title and Kona silver medal. He ended the season, in what was becoming a bit of a tradition, by winning IRONMAN Arizona for the third consecutive year. Seven wins and two second-place finishes from nine races was quite the year.
In 2018 Lionel won a quintet of middle-distance races – 70.3 Pucon, St George, Mont Tremblant and Indian Wells – La Quinta in addition to Challenge Samorin.
Four more victories followed in 2019 – 70.3 Augusta, Los Cabos, Indian Wells – La Quinta for a second consecutive year plus Challenge Daytona.
Since the resumption of top-class racing after the COVID-19 pandemic, Sanders has focused more on the full distance – although he has recorded two victories in 2021 at 70.3 Texas and 70.3 St. George. Silver medals at IRONMAN Copenhagen, Chattanooga and Florida have helped Sanders qualify for both the delayed 2021 and 2022 IRONMAN World Championships in 2022.
And he bagged second place in the first of those in St George with a perfectly-paced performance, overtaking Braden Currie in the closing stages in a race which was won by Kristian Blummenfelt.
Lionel Sanders at Kona
Lionel Sanders’ ultimate goal is to become World Champion over the IRONMAN distance, having made five trips to Hawaii so far.
His first trip to the island came in 2015 with a debut finish of 14th. A weak swim – the third slowest of the professional field – left Sanders with plenty of work to do on land. A mid-ranging bike split coupled with a top-10 marathon brought him through the field for a respectable maiden performance in Kona.
A year later, Sanders shaved four minutes off his time but finished much further down the field. Again the swim was his Achilles heel – 42nd out of 43 finishers – despite improving by over four minutes on the discipline. Lionel got himself in contention with the fourth fastest bike split but a sub-par marathon cost the Canadian. Lionel was finding, as many before him, that success in Hawaii is not easy t achieve.
2017 was Sanders’ finest hour at Kona to date as he secured a silver medal. Around five minutes off the lead during the swim, he worked with German Sebastian Kienle on the bike to set a blistering 4:14:19 split for the 180km.
However, Lionel was unable to stave off the relentless Patrick Lange, who chased him down on the marathon – this despite Sanders’ 2:51:53 being the fourth fastest run split in the entire race.
Sanders struggled to 28th and 22nd place finishes in 2018 and 2019 respectively, with uncharacteristic marathon failures – 3:15:26 (2018) and 3:13:42 (2019) – a large factor in his disappointing finishes.
Since his last challenge in KONA, Sanders has been very vocal about his ultimate goal of winning a World Championship, and he is tailoring his training and nutrition to that end.
Lionel Sanders and family
Lionel married Erin MacDonald in a small ceremony in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic in November 2017 – having got engaged at IRONMAN Florida in 2014. Erin, who also acts as Lionel’s full-time manager, organises all the logistics behind his training, racing and manages the Canadian’s sponsorship agreements.
His mother and father, Becky and Doug, raised Sanders in Windsor, Ontario. Becky is also an active triathlete, regularly racing in middle and full-distance races.
Lionel Sanders – ‘No Limits’
‘No Limits’ is the much-publicised mantra of Lionel Sanders, developed from his own personal experiences in life to date.
The mantra points out that there are no limits other than those self-created obstacles you put in front of yourself and these only exist in your own mind. That is the basis of Sanders’ entire triathlon journey – he tests that hypothesis every day.
Lionel Sanders gear
Sanders is one of the most recognisable names in the sport, and thus has one of the largest sponsorship portfolios too.
His current bike of choice is the Canyon Speedmax CFR – a familiar sight in the sport and the brand also ridden to Kona success by Jan Frodeno and Patrick Lange.
In addition, Lionel uses the HED Vanquish RC8 Pro wheel on the front – known as the V8 – and Vanquish RCD Pro rear disc wheel.
Other companies in the Sanders portfolio are Whoop, Gatorade Endurance, Freshii, Garneau, Form and Blue 70.