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From Substance Abuse to Standout Pro: Lionel Sanders’ impressive journey to the top of the sport

A look back at Lionel Sanders' early days in triathlon and what he has overcome to become one of the biggest names in triathlon

Photo by: Mundo Sport Images/ Geoff Robins

While we might not get to see the Jan Frodeno/ Lionel Sanders duel so many would dearly love to see next weekend at Challenge Miami, triathlon fans will still get to see Sanders, one of the sport’s most popular athletes, compete at the Homestead-Miami speedway. In 2014, just as the Windsor, Ont.’s career was starting to take off, we profiled Sanders in Triathlon Magazine Canada:

Two flats. Two flats in a race that you felt you had a chance to win. A win that would answer all the critics from the other surprise win – the one in Muskoka last year over Andreas Raelert, the world’s fastest Ironman. (Who, the critics will say, wasn’t in remotely decent form.) While most of the triathlon world knows next to nothing about the guy, a few folks in the know had warned me that Lionel Sanders would be a man to watch at Ironman 70.3 Texas in Galveston. Instead he got two flats, spent 10 minutes on the side of the road and was never a factor. Take away those 10 minutes from his time and he would have ended up third, 40 seconds out of first.

Sucks, right? Yes, but for Lionel Sanders things have been much worse. A lot worse.

“I found my strongest belt. I went into the garage and looked for a bolt in the rafters from which to hang it. I was bawling my eyes out, but it felt like the only solution to end the pain. I pulled up a chair, tied the belt around my neck and then attached it to the bolt. I stood on the arm of the chair for a long time and cried. My mind was racing.

“One of the thoughts that popped into my head was how my friend would find me the next morning. The next was what my mom’s reaction would be when she found out.

“When the image of my mom popped into my head, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew she would never, ever be able to live a normal life again. She would go the rest of her life with the guilt of feeling that she was responsible for me taking my own life.

“It was at that exact instant that I knew this was not the solution. It could not be the solution. I had to step down. For my mom. So I unhooked the belt and stepped down.” (From the Hamilton Spectator.)

Lionel Sanders of the McMaster Marauders runs in the men's 10K Run at the 2013 CIS Cross Country Championships. Mundo Sport Images/ Geoff Robins
Lionel Sanders of the McMaster Marauders runs in the men’s 10K Run at the 2013 CIS Cross Country Championships.
Mundo Sport Images/ Geoff Robins

Lionel Sanders has gone from suicidal drug addict to professional triathlete in just four years. That suicidal moment was just one of many “dark moments” Sanders experienced over a four-year period in which he seemed on track to squander a promising running career and, his life. Growing up, Sanders had excelled as a runner, but had managed a series of strong high school results and impressive university racing at the University of Windsor despite the fact that he partied every bit as hard, if not harder, than he ran.

It had started with marijuana. Soon it became a major part of his life. He began to take pride in his ability to party as well, if not better, than he ran. He had wanted to try ecstasy next, but got convinced to try cocaine instead. Over the next four years his partying lifestyle would derail his running career. He would drop out of school after a couple of years. He figured out ways to make money on the internet so he never had to leave his house so he could party 24 hours a day. One day he woke up in a detox centre. He tried desperately to break away from the lifestyle that was killing him, but inevitably found himself falling back to his old ways of drinking and cocaine use … and hating himself for it. Hating himself so much that he found himself standing on a chair with a belt tied around his neck.

Credit: sportzonephotography.com
Credit: sportzonephotography.com

I am sitting with Lionel Sanders in the Second Cup in Westdale, a small village a few kilometres from Hamilton’s downtown. I’ve known about him for a few years, ever since he transferred from Windsor to McMaster University. My daughter, the captain of the women’s cross country and track teams at McMaster, mentioned one night at the dinner table that Sanders had overcome some major issues to get back into running. I watched Sanders run amongst the best in the country for McMaster, earning all-academic and all-Canadian honours along the way and always remembering that quick dinner-table mention, wondering just how major those “issues” had been. Today I don’t want to dwell on those. I want to talk to Sanders about the challenges he’s facing as a pro triathlete.

You can’t separate his past from his current success, though. Sanders works his way through a Subway sandwich between sips of his latte as he answers my questions. Heading into his race in Texas I had been approached by a writer who wanted to tell Sanders’ story, but he didn’t want to write it before the race because he was sure Sanders was going to turn lots of heads with a big performance. Those flats wrecked that. It wasn’t the only disappointment Sanders would have through the early part of 2014. A few days before our conversation Sanders had competed at Ironman 70.3 St. George, where he got schooled by some of the best in the sport. Coming out of the water well behind the leaders, Sanders was never in contention at the race that featured a field that is likely to be one of the strongest we’ll see at a half-distance race in 2014.

Lionel Sanders winning the 2013 Subaru Ironman 70.3 Muskoka. Credit: finisherpix.com
Lionel Sanders winning the 2013 Subaru Ironman 70.3 Muskoka. Credit: finisherpix.com

“I’ve got a book full of lessons that I’ve learned from the last month of racing,” Sanders tells me. That book full of experience is likely to help in the future, but doesn’t help an up and coming pro who is in desperate need of some prize money to help make ends meet. I can’t help but point out that what he’s gone through to get to this point has to arm him with a sense of perspective that others wouldn’t have.

“When the going gets tough I tend to be able to stick it out well,” he concedes. “Life has been a lot worse. It is a privilege to be able to do this. Going into a deep, dark place has changed my perspective.”

Through my work with Ironman I get to meet lots of people who talk about how triathlon has changed their lives. When Lionel Sanders tells me that, though, it hits me with a new sense of perspective. He’s not joking. These aren’t clichéd, convenient words. He means it.

On Nov. 5, 2009 Sanders quit drugs and started running. It wasn’t enough, though. He still felt “like crap.” One day he got it in his head that he was going to do an Ironman. He didn’t have enough money for the entry fee for Ironman Louisville, the race he had decided he was going to do. He called his mother and asked her for her credit card number so he could enter the race. She told him he was crazy. Did he have any idea how hard an Ironman was?

He didn’t, but somehow convinced her to help him get entered. Thus began the journey. He did his first sprint triathlon in May, 2010 and “almost drowned in the swim.” He persevered, though, and got to the start line in Louisville. He finished the race, but concedes it was the hardest thing he had ever done in his life.

It seems somewhat ironic that Sanders’ life changing finish took place at 4th Street Live! – the raucous finish area for Louisville. A popular Lousiville party spot, the finish area is filled with bars and eating establishments. In an environment that would have been comfortable at his “deepest and darkest” times his finish at Ironman Louisville marked a transformation to his new lifestyle.

“I felt like I could do anything after that,” he says. He went back to school and started to run again. That fall, after seeing him race well in cross country, Barrie Shepley invited Sanders to come and join his elite squad with the Canadian Cross Training Club. He spent the summer of 2011 training with the group in Caledon, Ont. His swimming steadily improved, but his best performances came as a duathlete – in 2011 he was runner up at the U.S. duathlon champs and the following year he won the Canadian duathlon championships.

While his swimming was getting better, it was still the Achilles heel that was preventing him from moving to the highest levels of the sport. At the start of 2013 he gave himself one more year to achieve some decent triathlon results, otherwise he would focus his efforts on running and duathlon. In March he finished third at the Around the Bay Road Race in Hamilton. That spring he won the Binbrook Triathlon, hardly a major event, but one in which he found himself trailing Wolfgang Guembel, a lead-pack swimmer at many Ironman events in North America, by only a minute heading into T1. A few months later he was first overall at the Canadian age group championships over the Olympic distance. He applied for a pro card and entered Ironman 70.3 Muskoka, believing that he had a shot at the overall win.

Then Andreas Raelert decided to forgo the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Henderson, Nev. and compete in Muskoka. “Are you kidding me?” Sanders thought to himself when he saw the entry list. In the end, despite trailing by a few minutes after the swim, Sanders put on a cycling and running clinic that saw him cruise to an impressive win, one which this magazine dubbed the “performance of the year.”

That day Sanders averaged 1:19 per 100 m in the 1.9 km swim. How fast did he go during that first sprint in May, 2009? 2:38 for each 100 m. That improvement comes from lots of hard work, but there’s still more to do. If Sanders is going to compete at the highest levels of Ironman 70.3, or even Ironman racing (which is the goal), he’ll need to need to come out of the water much closer to the leaders than he does now.

My coffee is long done. I’ve kept Sanders so busy talking for over a half hour that he’s still got half of his sandwich and much of his latte unfinished. It’s time to wrap up the interview, but I am still not sure if I have what I really wanted from this conversation – so I just ask. Can he put into words what the sport has really done for him?

“It’s given me my peace of mind back,” he says. “I can look in the mirror again and feel good about myself. I have internal peace. I attribute most of that to leading an active life.”

As much as it has changed his life, he knows that he can help others do the same. “The higher [and more successful] I can get, the more credibility I have. I truly believe this has the power to change your life. It doesn’t have to be triathlon. Just an active lifestyle. I promise you, it will change your life.”

Of that he is more than sure. Five years ago, shortly after he quit drugs and started running, Sanders called his girlfriend and begged her to take him back. He told her he’d changed. “I don’t believe you’ve changed and I don’t believe you can change,” she told him.

“I can still hear that voice in my head,” he says. It motivates him each and every day.

Which is why, even after two tough early season races, you’d be crazy to bet against this guy achieving some great things in our sport. Sanders has been through a lot worse and not only survived, he’s excelled.