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Why The Lionel Sanders vs. Sam Long Rivalry is So Good for Triathlon

The two athletes’ willingness to lay it all on the line and say it like they mean it—with a mutual respect for each other—makes this rivalry one to watch for years to come.

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There have been a handful of decent rivalries in long-course triathlon’s relatively short history: Dave Scott vs. Mark Allen, Paula Newby-Fraser vs. Erin Baker, Chris McCormack vs. Normann Stadler, Chris McCormack vs. Craig Alexander, and Chris McCormack vs. whoever he felt like speaking out about on any given day.

There have also been more subtle match-ups over the years that saw competitors face-off several times at a high level but didn’t include the style or amount of banter you’d expect from true rivals. Think Chrissie Wellington vs. Mirinda Carfrae, Leanda Cave vs. Julie Dibens, or Patrick Lange vs. Jan Frodeno vs. Sebastian Kienle. 

So why are true rivalries in a sport where athletes race shoulder-to-shoulder so rare? It’s likely a combination of things. First, the best of the best rarely race head-to-head in long-course triathlon. Beyond the Ironman World Championship, there are very few races where every top athlete makes a start. Even the Ironman 70.3 World Championship rarely includes every top name. Maybe that will change with the introduction of events like The Collins Cup, but for now it’s the reality. Second, triathlon is a relatively niche sport where—especially on the professional and sponsorship side—everybody knows everybody. Once you add in the fact that it’s already difficult for most pros to make a living, you end up a recipe that leaves many athletes cautious about friendly trash talking or one-up banter. 

In practice, though, it’s a bit of a bummer for our sport. Triathlon and its revenue-generating properties are largely participant-based. Walk around any expo of a 70.3 or Ironman event and you’ll find that many competitors have little to no idea who the sport’s top professionals are. They’re in it for the fitness, lifestyle, and community. But the triathlete pays attention when there’s something to pay attention to, when there’s a rivalry worth watching and getting excited about—like the shoulder-to-shoulder battle at the 70.3 in St. George this past weekend. Rivalries at the professional level give fans something to be invested in and inspired by.

Remember when Macca and Crowie used to go back and forth (mostly with the banter coming from Macca’s end)? It provided excitement in the days leading up to the race and added an element of drama for race day. Of the rivalry, Alexander said: “People like to play it up and Chris likes to talk, but I’m immune to all of that. With some people, it doesn’t matter how often you beat them you can’t win.” Even in denying the rivalry, Alexander offered some pointed words that got us all excited to see them battle out on course. 

Do we now have another great rivalry to watch?

Lionel Sanders vs. Sam Long

Though the back and forth battle on the run at this past weekend’s Ironman 70.3 St. George race cemented the rivalry status of Canada’s Lionel Sanders and the United States’ Sam Long, it’s a relationship that’s been years in the making. The two have similar racing styles—come out behind in the swim, bike to the front of the field, and then leave it all on course on the run—which is something Long identified before he even turned pro. At 70.3 St. George in 2016, Long won the 18-24 age group and finished in 4:12:43. That same year, Sanders took the overall victory in 3:48:18. Knowing he wanted to turn pro and someday be able to compete with Sanders and other top elites, Long did the math and realized how much he’d have to improve—something he set in his sights.

“That year Lionel beat me by 33 minutes—so I went from 33 minutes to 5 seconds,” Long said of finishing second to Sanders on Saturday. “Truthfully there’s been a lot of banter and I’ve always looked up to him tremendously and have tried to earn his respect. I think I hopefully did that today. I think it’s hard because people like to say I’m a bit inferior or that I haven’t earned the right to say that I’m chasing after him. I think I can truthfully say that now—and I think that’s pretty cool.”

(You can watch the entire last 5K of this past weekend’s race on Sanders’ Youtube channel.)

The banter to date centered largely around their efforts during the pandemic to go after the KOM crown for the 21.2-mile climb up Mt. Lemmon near Tucson, Arizona. Sanders set the mark, and Long made it known his goal was to take the crown. The two had fun going back and forth, laying it out on social media along the way. Currently, Sanders has the crown with a flat 53 minutes for the tough segment. After the St. George race, Sanders joked that Mt. Lemmon is where their “fake beef” started.

And that’s perhaps what sets this rivalry apart from anything we’ve seen recently in triathlon. While they’re two of the most competitive triathletes you’ll ever meet, there’s also a healthy respect for each other that makes it even more enjoyable to watch. After crossing the finish line, Sanders collapsed. Long finished five seconds later and also fell to the ground. Then the two stood up and embraced, with Sanders getting emotional.

“It’s a privilege to take part in these great battles,” Sanders explained of the emotions. “They don’t happen too often where you go toe to toe like that and you’re taken to your absolute limit. There’s no way to describe it. It’s your entire being. There’s nothing else in the entire world in that moment. When it’s over and you embrace the person who took you there—I’ll never forget those moments for the rest of my life.”

It’s that willingness to be vulnerable and put it all on the line that’s made Sanders one of the most popular athletes in the sport. Long has that same openness when sharing his goals and what he wants—he jokes that it comes from him being a triplet and having to speak up and give his brothers a hard time growing up. Seeing the two similar personalities come together in a wholesome way that also puts the competitive spirit front and center is great for the sport—and these two athletes both acknowledge that.

“If you look at the other professional sports they really highlight rivalries,” Long said. “They highlight competition. We can still be a gentleman’s sport, but any professional athlete is a competitor and I don’t think we need to be shy about our competitive side. That’s what it boils down to.”

With Long on everyone’s radar now and Sanders firmly cemented as a threat in any race he enters, it will be entertaining to watch how their respective lay-it-all-on-the-line mentalities continue to shake up the pro men’s field. At 33 years old, Sanders jokes that he’s staying the same while 25-year-old Long is getting faster. But the reality is age-wise they’re both far from their peak abilities, especially across the Ironman distance. Will we see a Sanders vs. Long battle in Kona someday? Maybe—and it’ll sure be fun if it happens.

As a nod to the respect between these two, Sanders closed out his comments on the rivalry by saying: “That’s guy’s got it. He’s got the goods. He’s got everything to be world champion.”