Lionel Sanders: Background, career, highlights, quotes

Known as one of the most consistent athletes on the Ironman circuit, here's everything you need to know about the 70.3 and iron-distance champion, Lionel Sanders...

lionel sanders background and career

One of the most consistent and most successful Ironman competitors, Lionel Sanders has a win record that most fellow long-distance triathletes would trade a limb for.


An ITU world champion, a two-time Ironman Worlds silver medallist and a former world record holder, the Canadian has done it all. Well, nearly…

Who is Lionel Sanders?

Credit: Al Bello/Getty Images for Ironman

A keen cross-country runner in his youth, Lionel Sanders didn’t have the most conventional pathway into triathlon. The Canadian had substance abuse issues in his late teens and early twenties, causing him to drop out of college.

Taking up running again in 2009 proved to be his salvation and he competed in his first Ironman the following year. In possession of extraordinary self-motivation, Sanders has since climbed the ranks to become one of the most consistent achievers on the Ironman circuit.

Over the years, he’s amassed no fewer than 30 Ironman 70.3 victories, along with recording four wins at full Ironman distance. He’s also been a world record holder – at one point he held the Ironman world record for a few months.

Kona hasn’t always been the happiest of hunting grounds for Sanders, although he did claim silver in 2017; the same year that he took top honours at the ITU long-distance world championships.

Now in his mid-thirties, there’s still plenty of fuel in those legs yet. Don’t rule out ‘Colonel’ Sanders from adding a few more achievements to that accolade-laden CV.

How old is Lionel Sanders?

Lionel Sanders was born on 22 February 1988, making him 35 years of age.

Lionel Sanders’ career highlights

A successful sprint finish for Sanders, right, at IM 70.3 Oceanside on 2 April 2022. (Credit: Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

August 2010: Inspiration is found at his first Ironman race

Sanders competes in his first full-distance Ironman in Louisville, Kentucky. Although he trails in two hours after winner Paul Ambrose, his admiration for the victorious Brit inspires him to pursue a career as a professional triathlete.

September 2013: A pro 70.3 victory at the first time of asking

On his home patch of Ontario, Sanders enters his first half-distance race as a professional, promptly winning Ironman 70.3 Muskoka, the first of dozens of 70.3 triumphs over the following years.

September 2014: Just out of the medals at the Worlds

The day that the world starting taking real notice of the Canadian as a serious title contender. At the Ironman 70.3 world championships in Mont-Tremblant, Sanders emerges from the water in last position, four and a half minutes behind race favourites Javier Gomez and Jan Frodeno.

However, spirited bike and run legs find him finishing fourth, with just Tim Don separating him from Gomez and Frodeno.

November 2014: Elite Ironman debut bears the biggest prize

Lionel Sanders wins Ironman Florida 2014, an impressive debut. (Credit: Ironman)

Off the back of that impressive performance at the 70.3 worlds, Sanders races his first full-distance Ironman as an elite, leading the field under blues skies at Ironman Florida.

November 2016: Record-busting run in the desert

At Ironman Arizona, where he collects his second successive win, Sanders sets a new world record for a full-distance triathlon of 7:44:29, beating the record set five years earlier by the Belgian, Marino Vanhoenacker.

The Canadian’s record last for six months, when it’s eclipsed (by a full four minutes) by Tim Don at Ironman Brazil.

June 2017: Sanders’ coronation at the ITU long-distance worlds

Sanders takes his first – and, to date, only – world title when, against the odds, he takes victory at the ITU long-distance world champs in Penticton, British Columbia.

Having characteristically conceded much time to his rivals in the water, as well as suffering a puncture on the bike, he reels in Australian Josh Amberger on the run to become king of the world.

October 2017: Silver in Kona – and so nearly gold

Sanders just misses out on gold at Kona, 2017 Ironman World Championships. (Credit: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images for Ironman)

The Canadian carries his good form to Kona where he registers his first podium finish at the world championships – a silver behind Patrick Lange.

The medal was nearly a golden one. Sanders led the race until the 23rd mile of the marathon, before the German glided past.

July 2021: Zwift Battle Royale record-breaking iron-race

Jan Frodeno celebrates his Zwift Battle Royale victory against Sanders, right. (Credit: Joern Pollex)

The triathlon long-distance record is smashed by current record holder, Jan Frodeno, in an ultimate head-to-head between him and Ironman champion, Lionel Sanders.

December 2021: Sanders registers 70.3 win number 30

A regular atop the podium at Ironman 70.3 Indian Wells, this year’s victory is his 30th career win at the distance. Despite the win coming after second-place finisher Vincent Luis is hit by a car during the race.

That’s a highly impressive 30 wins in 40 starts; Sanders has only failed to reach the podium in four of those.

April 2022: A sprint finish for the ages

Sanders overtakes USA’s Rudy von Berg by one-hundredths of a second to take silver at Ironman 70.3 Oceanside in sunny California. A very successful season opener for 2022.

May 2022: Runner-up at the Ironman Worlds 

Takes his second Ironman Worlds silver medal, this time stealing it from Kiwi Braden Currie in the final few hundred metres at the postponed 2021 Ironman World Champs in Utah.

August 2022: Wins his CC match but finishes third

In a sprint to the line in Match 8 of 12 in the Collins Cup, Sanders just edges Sam Long for victory for Team International, who finish second overall. Sanders’ 3:12:24 is the third-fastest time of the day.

Lionel Sanders quotes

A celebratory champagne shower and second place for Sanders, left, at Ironman Mont-Tremblant in August 2018. (Credit: Al Bello/Getty Images for Ironman)

On his first Ironman – in Louisville, Kentucky in 2010 – where he was lapped on the run by Britain’s Paul Ambrose: “I thought he looked so cool and was amazed that someone could still be running that fast, that late into a long-distance event. I believe it was at that moment that the seed to become a professional triathlete was planted.”

On becoming ITU long-distance world champion in 2017: “That has got to be the hardest I have ever run. Unfortunately, I got a flat on the bike and the technical descent scared the crap out of me. I think it was a testament of two things: always carry a space and, second, it’s not over until it’s over.”

On his famous self-motivation: “From my experience, it appears that there are no limits, other than the self-created and imposed ones that only exist in your mind. I plan on spending my entire triathlon career testing this hypothesis.”

What’s next for Lionel Sanders?

Cooling off in Kona, during the 2017 Ironman World Championships. (Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images for Ironman)

More victories at full-distance Ironman races are a definite goal (he has four so far), with that elusive world title crown still agonisingly just out of reach.

He also became a father for the first time in October 2022.


Top image credit: Carmen Mandato/Getty Images for Ironman