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2021 Triathlete of the Year: Elite Men (Long Distance)

Four full-distance runner-up finishes and three Ironman 70.3 wins net Lionel Sanders another Triathlete of the Year honour

Photo by: Fotograf: Jörn Pollex/ tri-battle.com

When you look back at one of golf’s greatest rivalries, Jack Nicklaus will be remembered as the man who won more trophies, but Arnold Palmer was much more of a fan favourite. In looking back at Lionel Sanders’ 2021, it’s hard not to think of him as the “Arnold Palmer” of the sport over the last eight months. While he finished second to some of the sport’s biggest names on more than a few occasions, his relentless determination, competitive drive and openness in his popular videos only endeared him to his fans even more throughout the year.

Not that Sanders didn’t take more than a few titles in 2021 – there were wins at Ironman 70.3 Texas, the Ironman 70.3 North American Championship in St. George (where he won a thrilling sprint over Sam Long) and Ironman 70.3 Indian Wells – La Quinta.

6 Takeaways from Ironman 70.3 St. George

Just those wins alone would likely have netted Sanders our Triathlete of the Year nod, but there was so much more to his season. Sanders proved he was a class act at one of his worst races of 2021 when he struggled to get to the line at Ironman Coeur d’Alene – starting the run seemingly in position to take the win, Sanders had nutrition issues and was forced to walk much of the marathon. Just weeks after that race he acquitted himself well in setting a new personal best (7:43:32) at the Tri-Battle Royale. Next up was an incredible double where he finished second to Cam Wurf at Ironman Copenhagen, then earned the Julie Moss award for his “courageous performance” at the Collins Cup just a week later.

A few weeks after that Sanders would take another runner-up finish at a full-distance race, this time behind Joe Skipper at Ironman Chattanooga. Then there was another full-distance effort in Florida just over a month later – this time he would take second to 70.3 world champ Gustav Iden, running a 2:40 marathon to the Norwegian’s 2:34 effort.

5 Takeaways from Ironman Florida

The seemingly tireless Sanders would round out the year with the win in California in December and, while the day was marred by Vincent Luis’ car accident while leading the race, Sanders once again showed his class with his post-race social media posts acknowledging his “strange feeling” after winning the race. “@vincentluistri got hit by a car but is tough as nails and got back up and persevered onwards,” Sanders wrote on Instagram. “@jellegeens had his own adversity but went on to have the days fastest run. I’m happy with my performance but look forward to the rematch against these guys.”

While he might not have taken a full-distance win in 2021, Lionel Sanders most definitely proved that he is figuring out how to compete with the very best over the distance once again, returning to the kind of form that netted him a runner-up finish at the Ironman World Championship in 2017 and making him very much a contender for the Ironman World Championship to be held in St. George, Utah in May of this year.