Showstopping regularfoot pro from Hanalei, Kauai; winner of three straight world championships (2002-2004), a four-time Triple Crown winner (2002-2003, 2005-2006), and the only surfer with the style and firepower to outperform Kelly Slater during Slater’s prime. Irons death in 2010 from a drug-related heart attack shocked the surf world and made international headlines.
Andy Irons was born (1978) in Lihue, Kauai, the son of California-raised surfer/carpenter Phil Irons, who moved to Kauai in 1970 and spent two years living out of a beachside tent on a diet of rice, bananas, and avocados. Andy began surfing at age eight, along with his younger brother Bruce, and went on to become a top amateur, placing third in the boys’ division of the 1992 and 1993 U.S. Championships, winning the juniors division of the 1996 U.S. Championships, and taking both the juniors and men’s divisions of the 1996 National Scholastic Surfing Association championships. Later that year, while still a high school senior, Irons launched his pro career with an astounding win in the HIC Pipeline Pro, held in grinding triple-overhead barrels. A few months later he won the 1997 Tahiti Pro at Teahupoo.
Over the next three years Irons became the most visible and versatile surfer in the world. Well-proportioned at 6’0″ 170 pounds, with superhuman reflexes, he was able to blast skyward into any one of a number of spiraling aerial maneuvers in smaller waves, as well as set well-defined turns and cutbacks in larger surf, and position himself like a standing Buddha deep within the tube. “You can’t take your eyes off him,” surf journalist Chris Mauro wrote, noting that the new arcs and lines Irons had developed represented nothing less than “a break from the dominant formula. Surfing was just as effusive. “He has the miraculous combination of big-wave craziness and small wave ripping down better than any surfer in the world,” the magazine noted in 2003. “It’s a horrifying skill range.”
Younger brother Bruce had progressed just as quickly, and their fractious, sometimes violent sibling rivalry became a regular source of amusement to the greater surf world. Bruce once tried to blow up Andy with fireworks; Andy once knocked Bruce unconscious with a karate kick to the head. “We try not to talk to each other too much,” Andy said in 2000. “That way things don’t get too irritating.” (Volatility was a problem for Irons throughout his pro career, and world tour officials fined him $1,500 in 2000 for his part in a beach brawl with Australia’s Mick Campbell following their man-on-man heat in France.)
Irons qualified for the championship tour in 1998, won the World Juniors Championship, and halfway through the season posted back-to-back wins at Huntington Beach, California, in the U.S. Open and the Op Pro. He finished the year at #21, then dropped to #34 in 1999, at which point it was thought that he’d boozed and partied himself into an early career flameout. But Irons reined in, finished the 2000 season at #16, and went to #10 the following year. In 2002, he won two of the first three events (the Rip Curl Pro and the Billabong Tahiti Pro), took the ratings lead, and sailed on to the title, closing the season with a victory in the Pipeline Masters. He also won the 2002 Triple Crown.
Irons’ 2002 championship was the first shot in a competitive duel with then six-time world champion Kelly Slater that electrified the surf world for the next half-decade. The 2003 season was a toss-up until the last heat of the year-end Pipeline Masters. Slater held the ratings lead going into the contest, but Irons surfed the final perfectly, and bested Slater in an emotional heat, securing his second world title in a row. Irons won the championship in 2004 a bit more easily, this time fending off Australia’s premier stylist Joel Parkinson; Slater finished third.
By 2005, in part because of the challenge thrown down by Irons, Slater found another competitive gear and reeled off two more world titles on the run, with Irons finishing runner-up both times. The rivalry went beyond surf competition. Slater was the golf-playing, drug-free pro with a preference for all-white wetsuits. Irons was a hardcore rock-and-roll animal; in one memorable ad shoot, he dressed in black, and stood in front of the four members of Metallica while holding a flaming surfboard.
Irons won the Triple Crown in 2005 and 2006, and beat Slater in the 2006 Pipeline Masters final, overtaking the champ in the dying moments of the heat with a perfect 10 score to cap off what many still consider to be the greatest final in surf contest history. But he didn’t have quite the same edge. “That time was a real pressure cooker for both of us,” Slater told Outside magazine in 2010, looking back on his rivalry with Irons. “I felt like it was going to break me. I don’t know what it was like for Andy.”
In 2007, Irons’ year-end rating began a downward slide (6th in 2007, 13th in 2008), and long-standing rumors about his drug and alcohol abuse became an open secret among surf industry insiders. At the behest of long-time clothing sponsor Billabong, Irons sat out the 2009 season (Billabong also reportedly cut his pay), and it was later revealed that he’d done two stints in rehab; OxyContin was said to be the drug he had the most trouble with.
Starting out on his much-anticipated 2010 world tour comeback, Irons bombed the first four events, and was once again displaying signs of drug use. He briefly regained his footing to win the Billabong Pro Tahiti contest in September, but the following month he withdrew suddenly from a contest in Puerto Rico. Two days later, traveling alone, he checked into a Dallas hotel. The following morning, November 2, a hotel security employee found Irons dead in his hotel bed. He was 32. Lyndie Irons, his wife, was eight months pregant at the time of Irons’ death.
The official cause of death was cardiac arrest, but a toxicology report showed that Irons had potentially lethal levels of methadone and cocaine in his bloodstream, along with methamphetamine and Xanax.
The aftermath to Irons death was as messy and poorly handled as the event itself was tragic. The Irons Family, along with Billabong, first released a statement indicating that Irons had died of dengue fever, and CBS News, among other mainstream outlets, took that fabrication at face value and ran with it. The Irons’ family also twice blocked the release of the autopsy report. The surf media for the most part had neither the stomach or skill to report the circumstances of Irons’ death; when former Surfer staffer Brad Melekian wrote a pair of well-researched articles on Irons for Outside magazine—praising the three-time world champion’s talent, drive, and flair, but also detailing his drug history, his rehab stints, and his relapses, including Irons’ binge in South Beach, Miami, the day before he died—Melekian was roundly criticized for daring to present Irons in anything less than heroic terms.
Irons appeared in dozens of surf videos, including Voluptuous (1996), Raw Irons (1998), Rise and Shine (1999), Momentum: Under the Influence (2001), Flight Academy (2002), Campaign (2003), Blue Horizon (2004), A Fly in the Champagne (2009), and High 5 (2010).
Irons was named to Surfing magazine’s list of the “Top 16 Surfers of All Time” in 2004. Surfer placed him at #9 on their 2009 list of the “50 Greatest Surfers of All Time.” Irons was voted the year’s best surfer in the 2002 Australia’s Surfing Life Peer Poll, and won the 2002 and 2003 Surfer Magazine Readers Poll Awards. He was inducted into the Surfer’s Hall of Fame in Huntington Beach in 2003, The Surfing Walk of Fame in 2008, and the Hawai’i Sports Hall of Fame in 2012.