Written for BOMB Surf Magazine.
Live Fast, Die Young, Andy Irons
The last time I saw Andy, in person that is, was at the 2007 or 2008 Billabong Pro in J-bay. I remember clearly the incident: I was in the competitors area, feeling a little out of place, I never qualified for the WCT and I had quit trying at least 3 years earlier, so my subconscious was telling me “get out, go sit with the other fans, stop pretending your one of the boys”. My history with Billabong had gifted me the little yellow bracelet that gets you into the sacred area filled with the world best surfers, and some pretty insane snacks. Sitting on one of the wobbly little wooden benches, behind me I hear this thick American accent, with the twang of the islands, I froze a little, Andy was behind me, now I’m stressing, “do I turn around? say hello? will he remember me? Its been years? I shouldn’t be in here! I don’t belong!” I cant resist a glance, I swivel and look up, to my horror he is staring straight at me… I smile awkwardly not knowing what the hell to do now, the time that passed felt like 4 hours, and then he bellows…. “SIMON!!! How ARE ya bra!” he disarms my doubting subconscious in seconds, we shake hands and begin a genuine conversation about life, careers, the surf, and the swell on the way. He makes me feel like one of the boys and for a brief moment, I belong. To be a 3 time world champ, to spend every month in a new country, meeting new faces, people thrusting their hands out and spitting their names at you on a daily basis, to remember me, well, It’s a glaring contradiction to the Andy Irons we are given in the media. It’s the reason I felt the need to write this piece of opinion.
I remember when that media persona was born, he was a young pro, sponsored by MCD, and he surfed really weird, I remember thinking… what’s all this hype about, I had seen ads in every international mag and here he was in real life, his repertoire full of awkward blemishes and jerky reactions. He was so spontaneous; it didn’t even look like he knew what he wanted to do when each section presented itself. He was from the island of Kauai, and carried confidence and attitude by the bucket load, it was easy to mistake this for ego or arrogance but in reality, under that tough exterior was a sensitive soul trying to fill the big bravado shoes of a Hawaiian solider. I thought he had a chip on his shoulder because his brother was so good, it turned out to be the other way around.
Those early media hyped years were all about the sibling rivalry, Andy vs. Bruce, ‘who would go bigger?’ who would qualify first” the rivalry was fierce, or so the media wanted us to believe, the truth always lies somewhere in the middle, however, having witnessed firsthand a full-on scrap between the two during a heat I had with Bruce at 10-12 foot sunset, I would say the media weren’t to far off the mark. (Andy was caddying for Bruce, my brother caddying for me, midway through the heat, Andy offered Bruce advice to why he was losing, which turned into a full blown argument between closeout sets, Andy promptly turned and paddled to the beach). These early years they seemed locked in an internal family feud, oblivious to the expectations of the outside world, purely focused on out doing each other. Most of these battles took place on the hallowed ground of the North Shore, at Pipeline, in front of the world’s most blood thirsty journos and paparrazi. What they were doing at such a young age in waves of such serious consequence was unfathomable to us mortals, but to them, it was merely a brotherly scrap in the backyard over their favourite toy. The media lumped them together like a conjoined freak circus act, it only fuelled the rivalry more as they strove to break free of one another.
Phillip Andrew Irons vs Robert Kelly Slater
Ironic that two of our greatest surfing performers, carry names that are changed since birth, as if they were planned for stardom from a young age, Phillip and Robert will not do! Drop the first name and we have the Andy/Kelly show.
Andy’s rise to the top of the pro surfing ranking was not easy, he lost far more than he won, he was never saddled with the mantle “future world champ” (Kelly had this pinned to his forehead from age 14). Andy learnt how to lose, he wasn’t afraid of it, knew what it tasted like, and didn’t want to go back there. When his confidence found synergy with his talent, he was a serious threat, but once he learnt to harness his raw energy into a competitive package, there was no turning back. Around 2001, as Kelly was growing restless from 3 years of premature retirement, Andy began hitting his straps, he was learning how to win big. 2002, Kelly returned to surfing and at the tender age of 24, Andy had won his first world title. It would be the first year of a 4 year hot streak that would be defining on even the greatest surfer on the planet’s career.
2003 he set the asp world tour on fire, a genuine title race, a battle royal with a rejuvenated Kelly Slater, something the world had not seen for nearly 12 years, since Curren/Elko of 1990. Kelly the King, clean, wholesome, controlled and attempting to reclaim his rightful throne. Andy on the other hand, fresh blood, all attitude, uncontrolled emotion, raw talent, the media would instantly hand him the role of Arch Villain. Andy and Bruce could finally be friends, brothers again, because the media mongrel had a new bone to chew.
The race lasted all the way to Hawaii, all the way to pipe, and all the way to the final, for their first match up of the year. It could not have been scripted better. The fairytale. The battle of good and evil. But the un-thinkable happened, Andy beat Kelly. It was awesome, unnatural, not how the fairy tale should end! Dark Knight steals valiant Prince Charming’s crown.
The media frenzied. Kelly cried. Andy partied.
- Andy could do no wrong. Kelly, however, having just been handed his first real defeat in 12 years, no doubt the biggest of his career was scared like a schoolgirl, his cage had been rattled, then crushed. Contrary to what the media told him for 10 years, he was human. Andy was world champ again, and half way towards Kelly’s record of 6. For so many years Kelly had based his happiness and personal worth on the current rating sheet, suddenly the rug had been pulled, he was struggling with a value system that was too fragile, Andy was oblivious to his pain, and unaware of the similar storm that brewed for him on the horizon.
Funny thing about competitive rhythms, when they are going for you, the world is in the palm of your hand, against you, and it’s as if nature itself is rejecting you existence. No sport is this more apparent than when your medium is the mother ocean. It can change in a moment. The moment came in 2005. Kelly’s rhythm switched, and he grabbed the thread that would unravel the entire AI winning singlet, and he found it in a heat against none other than Andy’s brother, Bruce.
6 foot chopes, wind is onshore, Kelly combed and way back on the ratings. Minutes remain.
The wind switches offshore, nature changes her direction.
Kelly falls from the sky, layback, no hands, grab rail, nothing…. Spit.
The universe had shifted into Kelly’s favor and it would never shift back to Andy again.
The reversal of fortune is slow at first, runner up to Kelly in ’05 is not bad in anyone’s book, except Andy, he know how great Kelly is, he knows it’s an honor to be next to him on the podium, but this is Andy Irons, he couldn’t give a shit about Kelly and his wonderful career. Winning is the only thing Andy cares for, it is the driving force responsible for his happiness, he starts trying to hard, forcing it, but mother nature’s tides have turned and it’s a losing battle.
Something I have always wanted aspiring mini pro surfers to know, and Joe Soap who lives his dream through our sports heroes, is the emptiness that follows the emotional high of competitive success, sure you are the best, but what does that really mean? How can you use that momentarily truthful, yet arrogant notion to further your life and achieve personal happiness? Its not real. As quickly as it comes, its gone, move on , next event. The greater the victory, the greater the sacrifice, the bigger the hole left behind. This battle with the inner vacuum has never been as apparent to the outside world as it is with Andy and Kelly, in different ways. With Andy, the signs were there from early on … cut to a scene from Jack McCoy’s Blue Horizon: Andy having just won his first world title, is driving around Kauai in his massive truck and laments “I should be the happiest guy around here, I don’t know whats wrong with me, I’m the grumpy guy lately”. The emptiness of victory was already apparent. Kelly’s open ponderings of finding synergy between his personal and professional life which always seemed to be at odds, his quest for self fulfillment through victory has lasted almost 20 years.
But as spectators we only see what we want to see, their emotional collapses are merely signs for us to reshuffle our fantasy surfer team for the next event. When we were bored with Kelly’s dominance along came Andy, the perfect antidote to Kelly Complacency, and as they battled each other for personal happiness, we cheered them on, regardless of the consequences, like bleeding gladiators, the more Andy spat the dummy and the more Kelly cried, the better the show, we bayed for more blood!
Andys last few years are marked with a few sporadic victories, few and far between, his motivation long gone and if rumours are to be believed, the recreational side of tour life has started taking its toll. The meltdown is apparent on live webcast as it is to his closest friends, he’s not catching waves, flicking his board out on decent waves, stands straight up, does nothing, daring the media, the judges, to say something that might help him find purpose. They don’t. Maybe his brother accelerated the process when, after winning the Ripcurl Pro Search in Bali, promptly quit the tour. Life is easy for those who know what they want and torture for those who don’t. Billabong announce Andy’s sabbatical, burnout they call it, time to rejuvenate. The world shrugs and keeps watching the webcast, after all, new meat has arrived on tour, we now have the Dane and Jordy show. Mercilessly we have thrown our old idols aside and started playing with our new ones. So easily replaceable in this cut throat world of competition.
No one understands this more than Andy, fourteen months later and he want back in, back to competition, back to the limelight that temporarily fills his soul with purpose. “I know I don’t want to lose, so I guess I am here to win?” he offers meekly at a press conference. But that which returns to the Gold Coast in March 2010 is not the Andy we once knew, not the punk who stuck it to Slater and made him cry. He is shadow of his former physical being, but most strikingly, he is unconfident, the characteristic that he rode to victory all those years ago. Perhaps he is more stable? Perhaps his marriage to Lindy and their child on the way has filled the gap?
His first few heats are scary, soft turns, no energy, tired legs, and its even more apparent with the contrasting confidence and progressive moves the young rookies are stamping on their new territory. He does however find the strength to lift a trophy once more, at chopes, his favourite event, but it feels more like his friends have let him win this one, like they are secretly rooting for him more than themselves, hell, even Kelly is happy to lose to him in the semi’s, its all too suspicious.
My phone vibrates loudly on the wooden side table next to my bed, 2 missed calls, before 6 am? Must be important. Craig says “Andy is dead”.
Must be a rumor…..
Within minutes I have seen a thousand headlines, Google, Yahoo, ASP, New York times live, the world’s social media is set alight. Its true. I am horrified, I feel like I have been punched in the stomach. I think of his brother, his wife, their unborn child, I’m devastated. I barely knew him, and he knew even less of me. So why does this feel so close to home?
With the news of Andy’s passing, people across the world were gutted, it was a common reaction, but so was the confusion of why we all felt this way. The media would have us believe, he was the guy who crushed Slater’s pretty little picture, the spoilt pro who didn’t want to be your friend, the guy who escaped deaths jaws time and time again, actively seeking out the heaviest situations the ocean could offer, all in the name of fun, braver than all of us, foreign to us, and now, alone in a hotel room in the middle of Texas, far from his home on the islands, he had succumbed to a mosquito? It didn’t make sense. Unnatural.
Andy’s death inspired a spontaneous outpouring of sympathy across the planet like never has been seen for a member of our tribe before. Something changed. The world seemed to acknowledge the struggle to find himself, there was a global unification that transcended borders and ego’s. Most who felt a loss, a brother taken before his time, connected in a show of respect for surfing royalty. Surfers from every surfing country held paddle out rituals in varying number, some small and intimate, others with bigger crowds than seen at a WCT event. Never again will surf companies question the influence of their top team riders and the value they add to their bottom line, although to be fair, AI was one of a kind.
They say surfing began in Hawaii, as a pastime for ancient kings, Andy Irons was a royal decendant of the highest order, a pure blood, no matter how the media portrayed him or how he was perceived for his actions on land, a truly global appreciation for his ability to walk on water is what remains, and will be remembered for a long time to come.
A warning signal has rung out to those who will attempt to walk in his footsteps , the perils of success can far outweigh the reward. Victory requires sacrifice and its price may not be apparent until its too late.