Chasing the Lion
When film producers Matthew Johnston and Graham Colby came across Lionel Sanders’ story more than two years ago, they knew they had something exciting in front of them. Sanders had just turned pro and was seeing success on the local short course and international 70.3 scenes and showed promise as he stepped up to the full distance. His challenging past added to the interest – Sanders was once a drug addict who almost took his own life, then used running and, eventually, triathlon to turn his life around and become a world-class athlete.
Johnston and Colby released the festival cut of Chasing the Lion, last month. The 17-minute film is centred around Sanders’ race at the 2015 Ironman 70.3 North American Championship in St. George, Utah where he overcame a serious deficit after the swim to ride his way through the field and eventually take the win in his most important victory to date. The film touches on Sanders’ rough years, delves into his mindset as a top athlete and shares perspectives from significant figures in his life.
One such person is elite swim coach Gerry Rodrigues. The film captures Rodrigues’ trip to Windsor, Ont. from his home in California to meet Sanders for the first time to help him with his swimming. A remarkable cyclist and runner, Sanders is open about his weak swim skills. After enlisting the help of Rodrigues he has seen steady improvement in the open water.
Rodrigues’ insight into Sanders’ swimming as it affects his performance in non-drafting racing helps the audience understand the missing piece to Sanders’ otherwise complete package. It’s a crucial scene in the film as it underscores how Sanders, an otherwise world-class triathlete, pours his heart into working on this weakness. It’s a particularly inspiring scene for triathletes, who will no doubt enjoy the film, but also for others in the audience.
Hearing from Sanders’ father about his struggles with drug addiction and watching the two embrace at the finish line in St. George provides another powerful story in itself, one that will draw an audience beyond the endurance crowd. It’s a story of hope and perseverance and one that speaks to anyone who has had to rebuild themselves from rock bottom. In this way, Chasing the Lion succeeds in distinguishing itself from your average sports documentary, something Johnston says was the goal from the start.
“It’s about getting all of us closer to Lionel in a visceral way. I think it takes a mountain of courage, honesty and humility to really deal with the darkest parts of your own history on camera,” he explains. “Lionel delivered in spades.”
The producers hope the success of the festival cut will lead to resources to turn Chasing the Lion into a feature length film, following Sanders over the next few years of his career as he continues to prove himself as one of the best on the world stage.—cd
RIGHT Lionel Sanders wins Ironman 70.3 St. George, Utah in 2016