The love story between Windsor’s Ironman and his wife almost seems like a modern-day take on any number of classic novels.
Lionel Sanders is one of the world’s extraordinary physical humans—an Ironman. It wasn’t always that way—in fact, he might cringe at being referred to in such a manner—but few would dispute that description of him. He has weathered personal storms that would fell lesser mortals, especially those who wander into the wilderness of addictions from which many never return.Those who do and create a better life for themselves never do it alone. They need that special partner who not only loves them, but who has that unique ability to help create a partnership that is enduring, withstands all obstacles and brings out the best qualities in each other. Lionel Sanders found that person in a smart, charming, petite blonde he met online.
When you meet Lionel and his wife Erin it is obvious they are a team. As people who truly understand one other often do, they finish each other’s sentences and there’s a kindness in their demeanour when they speak to each other. Sitting around their kitchen table in East Windsor on a cold, March morning, they happily share their story, taking one on an interesting journey with two young people who are building a relationship that evolves with every challenge they face.
Their lives, now so entwined, took very different early paths. Erin grew up in a closely-knit family, graduated and prepared to start a lifelong career as a dental hygienist. As a teenager she had good friends and there was nothing that set her on a path to destruction. But while Erin was leading a calm, “normal” life, the same couldn’t be said for Lionel.
Now one of the top 10 Ironman athletes in the world, his early life was consumed by his addiction to drugs. Growing up in Harrow, a small community 45 minutes south of Windsor on Lake Erie, there wasn’t a lot for teenagers to do but they had plenty of access to drugs. He began smoking marijuana in Grade 8 and increased his use of the drug throughout high school. Despite his drug use and lack of real interest, during his years at Harrow District High School he was a successful runner and captain of the Harrow Hawks cross-country and basketball teams.
At the University of Windsor, he enrolled in the environmental science program, having turned down a seat in the human kinetics program, which today he says would have made more sense. He was smoking pot daily and soon graduated to cocaine. He ran for a short time at the university but didn’t make the cut for the cross-country team. A coach—Matt Gervais, who had watched him run in his younger years—told him one day he would be a world champion.
“I was a terrible guy—smoking cigarettes and pot and all this crap and this guy said this,” said Lionel. “At the time it went in one ear and out the other.” Years later, Gervais told Lionel that even then he knew the young man had that unquantifiable It Factor.
His drug use caused him drop out of school in second year. He also stopped running. He took odd jobs to pay for drugs and alcohol. When he couldn’t afford cocaine, he popped any form of pill he could get his hands on and sniffed glue and gas. Those were hard days and he made many unsuccessful attempts to get clean. But it was running that would ultimately lead him down the path to sobriety and becoming a super athlete.
On a warm November day in 2009 he laced up his running shoes and for the first time in many years, put his body in motion. He looked up the date of the next Ironman race—August 2010 in Louisville, Kentucky—and decided he would be a participant. Some would have thought it foolhardy and even he knew he wasn’t ready, but it was a goal and he was determined. He ran every day and was getting stronger. Then, three months after getting sober, he relapsed. He felt utterly defeated. He didn’t know how to move on. So great was his shame of letting himself down yet again, suicide seemed an option—but standing in his garage during that very dark time he says he thought about his mother. Their bond is really something special.
“I knew she’d blame herself if I went through with it and I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”
He then knew he had healed enough to be able to pull himself back from the brink.
Having moved in with his father, Lionel put the Ironman back on his agenda and started training again. Despite having the odds against him, he completed the course in 10 hours, 14 minutes and 31 seconds. It was truly a new beginning.
That new beginning meant continuing a lifestyle change. He was getting more and more serious about triathlon, training a lot and not going to bars where a typical 23-year-old guy would meet women. “I didn’t find anyone in the real world I could connect with. I was just getting out of partying and wasn’t really running into anyone I was super compatible with because I was sort of in limbo.”
During a training camp in Tucson, Arizona, in 2011 he logged on to the free dating site Plenty of Fish and entered his profile. Mostly, he said, as a joke with no expectations.
In Windsor, another 23-year-old had entered her profile on the same site.
Neither of them was attracted to the first people who contacted them. Then one day they found each other.
“I messaged him first because he said something about napping. I was 22 at the time and liked napping. And, I thought he was cute and fit,” said Erin, laughing at the memory. “Then, we added each other on Facebook so I thought, okay, he’s real. We talked every day for a month online before we met in person.”
During those long conversations, Lionel was upfront about his past life and addictions. He held nothing back and shared everything with Erin.
“Everything was laid out right from the beginning. He was completely honest with me and had nothing to hide,” said Erin.
Preparing for that first meeting in person was nerve-wracking for Erin. She told her friends she was going to meet a strange man, and they were worried. They told her she would get murdered. She went anyway.
“That first night I went to the house he was living with three other guys on Askin Avenue near the St. Denis Centre,” said Erin. “They weren’t there at the time. We ordered pizza and watched a movie. I felt kind of shy and awkward.”
That’s not how Lionel saw it, however. He knew he had found someone very special.
“I didn’t feel any awkwardness whatsoever. The silence was comfortable—it was just nice to sit and just be. I really liked her. She is such a sweet girl, kinda shy, and I really liked that.”
For their first “official” date, Lionel went all out.
“We went to the casino, booked a room and went to The Keg for dinner. I had just finished second at the U.S. national duathlon championship—run-cycle-run—and had my first paycheque of $1,250. I spent the whole thing on an outfit, dinner and the hotel room. Easy come easy go.”
A week after that date Lionel moved to Caledon, Ontario, for a summer-long training camp. They began the long-distance romance dance. It did not go well. “I literally called my mom a couple of weeks later crying and telling her, ‘I have to go home, I have to get home to see her,’” Lionel recalls. “But I had no transportation, so Mom drove all the way to Caledon to pick me up and then we drove right back.”
It was clear to them both that this long-distance experiment was not going to work. Lionel decided to enroll in classes at McMaster University in Hamilton and took Erin with him.
“We had been together only three months and here I was loading up a U-Haul with her dad. She really took a leap of faith in me. I was in school again, pretty much a lifelong student at the time. She became a self-professed sugar mama.” And more laughter. Erin explains she had been covering a maternity leave and had nothing to keep her in Windsor. She got a job in Burlington and became the breadwinner of the family.
Lionel’s choice of classes was eclectic. Between the years he spent at the University of Windsor and McMaster, he studied environmental science, psychology, neuroscience and behaviour, math and sociology. Extremely well read, he often peppers his conversation with references to include Nietzsche and other modern philosophers. He and Erin enjoy reading together and often read to each other.
Triathlons require strong swimming—knowing his swimming was weak and far below par, Lionel hoped to join the Varsity swim team at McMaster. But, at the end of a year he had made small improvements and never did make the team. It was also becoming obvious to him that schoolwork was keeping him from focusing his time on the thing he loved best: triathlon. During the three years they were in Hamilton he spent two months in training camp and was away competing in races in Arizona and Spain.
“I couldn’t go because we couldn’t afford it. Lionel was getting OSAP and there were people paying for him to go to the races,” said Erin. “I always felt really bad when I couldn’t go.”
Lionel’s greatest asset, besides Erin, was Barrie Shepley, another Harrow native who had attended the same schools in the town as Lionel… 25 years earlier. Shepley had started a triathlon club in Harrow in the late 1970s with 100 people. He says some of the best athletes in the country came out of those early races. In university, Shepley started the provincial triathlon association—Triathlon Ontario—and was its first founding president, running it out of his residence room. He also started the Kids of Steel triathlon series, where athletes like Simon Whitfield and Andrew Yorke got their starts and eventually went to the Olympic Games.
Shepley became Canada’s first Olympic coach in 2000 and Whitfield won the first Olympic gold medal in the sport.
“That gave me a chance to understand sponsors, media and such for Simon and that experience has been invaluable for helping Lionel and Erin,” said Shepley. He has done TV commentary and for more than 20 years has also called major live race coverage all over the world, including Ironman. He has been to all five Olympic Games for triathlon and says he has seen every athlete, from the time they were teenagers to the top of their careers. Lionel, he says, is unique.
“Most start as kids in the sport and go through junior ranks, then to developing pro if they are good enough,” he explained. “In Lionel’s case, he had no junior triathlon, very little development time and essentially raced for fun for 18 months and then straight into long-distance pro. I don’t know anyone else who could do what he’s done. It would be like Wayne Gretzky not having played youth hockey or junior hockey but then jumping into the NHL and beating everyone. He is truly, truly exceptional and unique.”
Shepley also had the advantage of observing Lionel during his high school days.
“His running coach, who was my old chemistry teacher, called me and asked me to assist him in Lionel’s training program as a runner,” said Shepley. “He has incredible energy and talent but was not completely focused on using his gifts as he is now. My impression was a very self-determined young man who had incredible willpower and needed some guidance to help his immense talents shine.”
Lionel wanted to be a full-time triathlete, but he needed a way to survive financially. Little did he know that kind of help had been set in motion during his race in Spain—a race he didn’t win, ironically. Watching the race that day was Leamington optometrist Richard Kniaziew, who had already sponsored two other talented athletes. Having been involved in the triathlon sport since its inception in the area, Kniaziew was always on the lookout for exceptional young athletes. He saw one of those on the track in Spain.
He watched as the athletes continued the six-loop bicycle race. Kniaziew noticed that by the third loop Lionel was three minutes behind. “When he appeared, he was bleeding and you could see he had crashed. This is where most people would quit,” said Kniaziew. “But this kid never gave up. He continued the race, then he ran to the finish line and I thought ‘Wow, this kid has stamina.’”
Unbeknownst to Kniaziew at the time, he already had a family connection to Lionel—Kniaziew’s son-in-law was Lionel’s former coach, Matt Gervais.
When Kniaziew returned to Essex County he called Shepley, who filled him in on Lionel’s story. It would be a year before he saw Lionel in a bike store and asked him what he would need financially to become a pro and what equipment he needed. He knew Lionel’s weakness was swimming, and Shepley told Kniaziew it would take one year to improve his swimming to triathlon level.
“When I consider sponsoring young athletes I look for motivation, attitude and drive. Lionel had tremendous motivation, the right attitude and his drive
phenomenal,” said Kniaziew.
Kniaziew met with Lionel and told him he would provide him with a salary of $1,000 per month and said he could keep anything he won in races. But there would be stipulations in the sponsorship contract they signed.
“I told him he had to stay in school and finish his education, be drug-free and stay with Barrie as his coach,” Kniaziew explained. “We would provide him with the best equipment in the world and my son-in-law would provide technical support. Lionel agreed and has done that, and I am really proud of him. He has done well and once he started getting noticed, many other sponsors came on board.”
But while Kniaziew was pivotal in Lionel’s career, he is quick to emphasize that success belongs to his young protégé.
“I feel blessed and happy to be able to help someone who is so committed. I remember seeing him in the last four miles of the 26-mile Ironman in Hawaii and I felt his pain. He led most of the way and when he fell back I felt so sorry for him. He worked so hard,” said Kniaziew. “Now he has Erin and she is looking after him and doing a wonderful job. Lionel is one of the best and he should win Ironman next year.”
As a professional, Lionel won his first race in Muskoka in September 2013 and earned $3,000. They celebrated. The next race taught him nothing is a sure bet. Erin and his parents were watching him in the U.S. national championship in Utah in May 2014 when he finished 18th—10 minutes behind the winner.
“I got a flat tire and tasted adversity,” Lionel said. “It was pretty humbling, and I began to rethink things. Then I went to a race in Raleigh, North Carolina, in June 2014. Erin sacrificed time off work and drove 12 hours nonstop in her old Pontiac G6. I came in second and won $2,000 and I gained a bit more confidence.”
Then he adds with a
laughs, “On the way home the windshield broke and cost us a chunk of the money.”Lionel realized he did not want to run any more races without Erin watching. In almost 40 races, she has missed only two. “I’d much rather have her there. It’s hollow when she isn’t, and I don’t want to go without her. I like to look up and make sure she’s there. It always feels better when I know she’s watching. Erin does most of the work helping me get ready and I do the work when the gun goes off.” In May, he will again run the Utah.
Lionel and Erin returned to Windsor in 2014 to begin the next phase of their lives and to work on the “business.” They are learning how to do that together, more in sync than ever. Erin’s role is becoming more defined. At
she takes care of his nutrition. She helps answer fan mail, media
takes care of his schedule, connects with sponsors and together they brainstorm new ideas, always looking for more opportunities.
To understand what drives Lionel and his commitment to his profession, it’s all laid out in his very personal blog. He takes his commitment to his fans very seriously and makes sure they know everything that’s going on with him. For those who want every statistic and number, they can find it in the meticulous detail he provides on every race, being a numbers junkie himself.
Erin is in charge as their social media manager, playing an essential role in communicating with their public and family. She periscopes races so that people can watch them in real time. Lionel is teaching her the elements of coaching and training so that she can write training plans. She is also laying the groundwork for starting their own YouTube channel. They want a more effective way for Lionel to continue helping at clinics with young kids who look up to him.
But Lionel is the business and his performance on the world stage is why people want to know him. He is an icon in the sport because of his triathlon successes and his character. It’s something Lionel takes very seriously, and it does not go unnoticed.
“Lionel is determined not to cut corners, not to take the easy way,” said Shepley. “He gets up early, does his training, and tries to become better today than he was yesterday. Most people, once they have gotten to his level, back off and enjoy being very good. He wants to be the best and that means, sacrifice and doing the right things consistently.”
Lionel spends many hours in his basement “torture chamber,” where he often runs in a room heated to excessive temperatures that mimic the heat of Hawaii. In a specially insulated
Erin clocks him in the 17 x 8–foot pool where he is working on overcoming his swimming weakness. They will often work outside with Lionel running and Erin pacing him on her bike.
Erin’s role in Lionel’s life professionally and personally is critical to his success now and in the long term, according to Shepley. He calls them equal partners and says he has seen great athletes fail because of lack of support around them and partners who don’t understand the fatigue, stress
environment required to be great.
“Erin is an A++ champ,” said Shepley. “She gets it 100 percent and knows Lionel’s needs better than he likely knows them. By interpreting what is required to reduce his fatigue and stress, she allows him to train that one percent harder and recover that one percent more than his competitors. They are truly a team and the wins on the field by Lionel come significantly from the great support and behind-the-scenes work that Erin does for their team. It’s as good as anyone I’ve seen in 30 years. She does dozens of things that others don’t see so that he can become the best in the world. She understands it’s 50 percent training, 50 percent business.
“It would have been impossible for Lionel to become as successful as he is, as quickly as he has without Erin.”
Erin’s commitment to understanding what Lionel needs is so strong, she did an Ironman with him to experience what Lionel’s work is all about. It’s something she says she will never forget.
In 2015 in Mont-Tremblant, Erin did her hair, took a bottle of water and set out on her bike in the punishing race. Within hours she was crying and laughing and “losing her mind.” She peed her pants and had spit flying all over her face. After nine hours on the
she couldn’t feel her crotch. Her inappropriate bra was chafing her. She never gave in. Lionel looks at her with admiration and says when he realized he wasn’t going to win in Mont-Tremblant because he had two flat tires, he thought of dropping out. At about that time he passed Erin on the route.
“She was crying and I just wanted to ride with her. I had wanted to quit and then I looked at her doing her best and suffering. I couldn’t do it,” said Lionel.
Erin persevered and was joined on the last leg of the race by Shepley and his wife Caron, a yoga teacher. It was getting dark and they had to wear glowing necklaces around their necks.
“I officially finished last in that race. Lionel was there to hand me my medal. I was hallucinating because I thought we hugged and I fell off my bike,” said Erin. “If I ever did another race I would certainly be more prepared. It was brutal.”
As they prepare for another season of races, especially Kona in October, and building their brand, they take nothing for granted. Because of his past addictions, Lionel is dedicated to his growth as a person and making sure his foundation is solid.
I substituted a negative addiction with a positive addiction. Then one day I realized what I was doing and knew if it was taken away from me I would be in trouble,” said Lionel. “I have so grown in that department and removed from it, it could be taken away and I now know I would fine. Even if I don’t win Kona, it’s not the end of the world for me.”
On June 29 they will celebrate their seven months of marriage with family and friends. They are both grateful for the experiences and good fortune that’s come their way. Lionel’s take on the world is mixed with philosophy and spirituality.
“I am thankful to wake up every day, so happy and blessed. The worst day in an athlete’s life is when you have no one to thank. The world is a magical place. Triathlon saved my life. I just want to be part of it, to experience it all,” Lionel says.
And what does Erin see when she looks at her husband? She pauses.
“I see a handsome face, dark hair…” She falters, and her eyes fill with tears.
“I see the love of my life. I could not live without him.”
Lionel reaches for her hand. “I feel the same way,” he said. “You have made me a better person. We’re a team.”