The Life of Surfer Andy Irons

Alone in a hotel room in Dallas. It's probably not the way Andy Irons expected to die. Maybe he thought a head-on with an Indonesian reef was more likely, on some bad morning-after when, just once, he didn't make the twelve-foot drop. A three-time world champion, Irons was the anti-Slater, as demon-driven as his rival is media-friendly. They were working class Kauai vs. Cocoa Beach.

Surfing seems to regularly spawn the sort of two-fisted intensity Irons took on both life and waves with. You don't have to think hard to name his natural predecessors. Irons made winning look every bit as hard as it is. You grow up paddling out into heavy water and shallow reefs and it imprints you. From the time the cameras first zoomed in, Irons was in-your-face. You can only guess what he was like when the cameras weren't around. The rumors take some of the guesswork out. But his record stands and speaks louder, and his golden years were truly that.

After some inconsistent early-20's starts, Irons hit stride and streak beginning in 2002 at the Rip Curl Pro in Australia. He quickly made Teahupoo his own -- and his personal favorite -- and moved on to Europe, racking up solid near-misses in France, then a win in Spain. Even at venues where he walked away a runner-up, there was an acknowledgment that Irons took the momentum with him when he left. He carried it through the WCT at Sunset Beach and by the end of the year, he'd ridden the wave to victory in the Xbox Pipeline Masters and successfully crossed the Vans Triple Crown off his list.

By 2003 Kelly Slater was hearing paddlestrokes and feeling heat. His nine-year lock on Surfer Magazine's "Surfer Of The Year" title was broken by Irons (probably to Slater's relief -- a decade of that begins to be embarrassing.) But Irons was feeling pressure, too, from Aussie kids coming on strong. Irons took home enough Quicksilver prize purses in 2003 to earn his own line on the company's spreadsheet. He did the WCT repeat and walked into the Surfer's Hall Of Fame. Slater took time off for contemplation, Irons turned up the burner to the "white hot" setting.

He continued to record single digit placings at all the familiar venues in 2004. There was talk of his being unstoppable. Today it sounds wistful. For many great artists, the peak moment represents t-minus one minute before the big slide starts. For Irons, a slide meant first place in Quicksilver Pros in Japan and France in 2005.

But after 2005, the major wins ebbed to almost none and then literally zero for three years between 2007 and 2010. Meanwhile the stories of drink and other excess clattered in the closet and caused whispers in the boardrooms of corporate sponsors who put $75 bar codes on Irons-branded board shorts. Publicly, it was all written off to the pressures of being number one. Or the rigors of all that dreadful, killer travel on the tournament circuit.

Things have a way of turning out badly: Irons seemed to be making strong steps toward a comeback in 2010 when he took first in the Billabong Pro at his beloved Teahupoo. Later in the year, he got symptoms of dengue fever and dropped out of the tour in Puerto Rico. Heading home to a pregnant wife, he pulled a whereabouts-unknown layover in Miami, then flew on to Dallas, where he checked in and never checked out. Whatever Andy Irons saw coming at the end of all those long, blue-green barrels he passed through with grace and defiance, it probably wasn't this.

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