The IRONMAN 70.3 North American Championship at St. George was tremendous this weekend, and I don’t want to bury the lede (the real story is Sam Long). I’ve seen a different story unfold going all the way back to Challenge Miami, the closing window to win on the biggest stage for Lionel Sanders. Is he the Patrick Ewing of triathlon?
Lionel is a machine and knows how to go deep into the hurt locker in any race, but on the biggest of stages he’s come up short or often wasn’t even a contender that day. Let’s begin the comparisons to Patrick Ewing.
First off, Ewing in his prime had to contend with Jordan in his prime (les two years). Lionel has Jan (les two years as well). Both Sanders and Ewing couldn’t make it past the guys who changed the game.
Now let’s look at those two years in their prime where the best wasn’t there. Ewing made the 1994 NBA Finals, but would get beat in seven by soon to be back-to-back champion Hakeem Olajuwon, who avenged his 1984 NCAA finals loss to Ewing (That game seven loss is more on John Starks than anyone else, he couldn’t hit water even if he fell out of a boat that day). In the 2017 IRONMAN World Championship Lionel would then lose to eventual back-to-back champion Patrick Lange by getting passed at mile 23 on the run, it was heartbreaking to watch. Both Ewing’s Knicks and Sanders were non-factors the following year.
Ewing then had three more years of Jordan’s reign starting in 1996. We’re already into year two of Jan dominating again and it looks like he could win two more possibly. This is where we find Lionel now, in the second reign of Jan.
The year after Jordan retired the Knicks would go on to the Finals, but would lose 4-1 to the sporadic dynasty that was the Spurs. It was an injury riddled season for Ewing…he didn’t even play that Finals and was his last season as a Knick. Ewing would officially retire two years later. Once Jan’s reign is over Sanders may be 35—he’s been digging real deep for some of his races…will be still have that ability then? You can only go to the well so much before it runs dry.
So the funny thing is the next season after Ewing’s departure from the Knicks for lesser roles elsewhere…this young buck in his forth season won his first of five titles over the next decade. Is triathlon’s Kobe Bryant going to be Sam Long? Because from what I saw on Saturday and as young as Sam Long is, I think you’re looking at the heir apparent to Jan Frodeno.
Okay, now for all the “whataboutisms” you’re going to say. But what about Lionel’s “The Championship” and ITU Long Course Championship wins? Those are like Ewing’s one 1984 NCAA title at Georgetown, not the same level of competition as an NBA championship—Lionel’s “big stage” wins aren’t over fields as deep as an IRONMAN or IRONMAN 70.3 championship field, also sans Jan Frodeno. Ewing’s 1985 Georgetown team also lost to eight seed Villanova, the biggest Cinderella champ of all time…but I don’t have a Lionel moment for that (yet). Ewing (7’-0”) was also blocked once by the shortest player in league history, Muggsy Bouges (5’-3”), I don’t have a Lionel moment here either but I thought it was a unique bit of obscure NBA history that should be known.
Ewing and Sanders will both be considered amongst all-time greats in their sports, but the question remains “On the biggest stage will both remain untitled?”