There were always rumors of drug abuse and binge drinking, but until Andy Irons died mysteriously in a Dallas hotel earlier this month, nobody close to the surfing legend was willing to talk. In an exclusive, friends and sponsors break surfing's code of silence to recount the tragic descent and final days of the sport's most troubled star.
By Brad Melekian
WHEN THREE-TIME world surfing champion Andy Irons was found dead on Tuesday, November 2, in a Dallas hotel room, the news reverberated far beyond the sport's core of devoted fans and followers. The second was the date of crucial midterm elections throughout the United States, but the most frequent Google search that day was for a person who had nothing to do with politics: Andy Irons. His passing was covered by hundreds of media outlets all over the planet, a clear measure of the impact Irons had during his amazing athletic career.
It wasn't as clear what had killed him. Two days before his death, Irons, 32, had withdrawn from pro surfing's World Tour contest near Isabela, Puerto Rico, electing to fly home to Kauai, Hawaii, to be with his wife, Lyndie, who was eight months pregnant with their first childâ??a boy. During a layover at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport on the morning of November 1, Irons skipped his connecting flight to Honolulu and instead checked in to DFW's Grand Hyatt hotel, crashing in his room. He didn't respond to wake-up calls the next morning, and Hyatt employees, worried that something was wrong, entered the room and discovered his lifeless body in bed.
Irons's family, together with his primary sponsor, Billabong, quickly released a statement saying that the surfer had "reportedly been battling with dengue fever," a mosquito-borne disease they said he'd picked up at the Association of Surfing Professionals' October stop in Peniche, Portugal. From the outset, though, the dengue-fever explanation seemed unlikely as the sole culprit. Several surfers came down with the flu after Portugal, but no medical evidence was presented that Irons had dengue, which is fatal to only 1 percent of the people it afflicts. "I've had dengue fever," says one professional surfer who knew Irons. "You don't die from it unless you're in a Third World country."
What killed Irons is still unknown, and in the aftermath of his death, there was nothing to go on other than hints that he'd been taking prescription medications in his final hours. The Tarrant County Medical Examiner performed an autopsy on November 3 but didn't state a cause of death, pending a toxicology report that isn't expected until early December. When police searched Irons's hotel room, they found two prescription bottles labeled as the generic forms of the anti-anxiety drug Xanax and the sleep aid Ambien. And a report in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser quoted a medical examiner as saying that the prescription drug methadoneâ??used to treat addiction to heroin and opiate-based pharmaceuticals like OxyContin, and given more rarely for painâ??had also been found inside the Ambien bottle. A spokesperson for the examiner's office denied this comment, but the Star-Advertiser stood by its report.
NONE OF THESE FACTS add up to anything definite, and the cause of Irons's death won't be known until medical officials issue their findings. But this much is now clear: Irons had battled with alcohol- and drug-abuse issues throughout his adult life, and on at least one occasion nearly died as a result, during a 1999 binge-drinking episode in Indonesia. As Outside has learned through interviews with dozens of friends, colleagues, and surf-industry professionals who were close to Irons, his problems were common knowledge in the insular world of pro surfing, but they were kept under wraps by an unspoken but understood code of public silence. After Irons's death, several of these people decided it was time for the surf world to face facts. Still, fearing reprisal, a few sources requested anonymity.
Many people confirmed Irons's drug and alcohol abuse, though when it came to narcotics, nobody could say precisely what he took or how often. Most sources described a mix of prescription and recreational drugs, noting that, while they never saw him consume them, their effects were obvious. But if Irons practiced discretion, he ignored moderation. On July 24, 1999, he nearly drank himself to death at the Bumi Minang hotel, in Padang, Indonesia.
"He basically died on us, more than once," said Art Brewer, the 59-year-old elder statesman of surf photography, who traveled with Irons and a half-dozen pros on the 1999 trip to the Mentawais, an Indonesian island chain. Twelve days after Irons's death, Brewer agreed to meet at his studio in Dana Point, California, to tell his story publicly for the first time. From the outset of this interview, he was careful to point out that he didn't see Irons ingest anything other than alcohol. But whatever was in his system, Irons had consumed too much of it, lapsing into a state of unconsciousness during which he appeared to stop breathing or have a pulse for a three-minute period.
"It was Andy's 21st birthday," said Brewer, who has known Irons's family for 40 years. Irons and the surfing crew had returned to port in Padang from the Mentawais, and Andy "started out drinking. I saw half a quart of Jack Daniel's that had been drunk." Brewer drifted off to his room, but at 10 P.M. he was roused by a surfer who said he had to come quickly: Irons was in trouble. "I went to the room," said Brewer, "and Andy was blue."
Brewer was told that Irons had consumed a second fifth of Jack Daniel's, passed out, and stopped breathing. "So they stripped him down and threw him into a cold shower. They threw ice on him. He wasn't responding, and he was getting bluer and bluer."
One of the surfers administered CPR, which got Irons breathing again, and the group took him to a small local hospital, where he was given oxygen. "Then he went flatline," said Brewer. "He just dropped on us again. I think this happened three to five times total." The first hospital wasn't equipped to provide critical care, so the group took him to another, which was also improperly equipped, before landing at a facility that could treat him.
"They got him into ICU," said Brewer. "He'd gone flatline again. They paddled him. He came back up and, somewhere in between that and when we were outside the ICU, he went into a coma. And then one of his lungs collapsed. It was shocking."
For six hours, Brewer and some of the surfers waited outside the ICU. "Finally, at three or four in the morning," he said, "Andy comes around, they get his lung reinflated, and he comes out of a coma." The next day, Brewer was able to convince doctors to release Irons so the group could make their scheduled flight to Singaporeâ??where he received additional treatmentâ??and then home.
Unfortunately, the experience didn't seem to change Irons's behavior. A week later, Brewer said, at a party in the L.A. area held by Surfer magazine to celebrate its annual readers' poll, Irons went over the top with his drinking again. "What really pissed me off is that he was so fucked up at the Surfer Poll Awards," he said. "I couldn't believe he hadn't mellowed out. It made me wonder how he could go that hard and have a near-death experienceâ??or a death experienceâ??and then come back and push the envelope again."
The Indonesia crew never told their story, but in the wake of Irons's death, Brewer and others felt the time had come. "I'm honorable as far as keeping my mouth shut about things that are basically none of my business," said Brewer, who got a blessing from Andy's brother, Bruce, another top professional surfer, to discuss the episode. "But this one came so close to me. I could have lost one of my friends' children. Then who's at fault?"
ANDY IRONS GREW UP in Hanalei, Kauai, the north-shore town populated by locals and the people who run Kauai's tourism industry. His father, Phil, a carpenter and surfer and one of nine children, had moved to Hawaii from California in 1970. Andy and Bruce, who is 16 months younger than Andy, spent most of their childhood competing with friends and cousins for the island's perfect waves.
Both brothers eventually surfed professionally, but it was Andy who broke out in 1996, winning the HIC Pipeline Pro, on nearby Oahu, at age 17. A few months later, still relatively unknown, Irons showed that it wasnâ??t a fluke by winning another pro eventâ??this time at Tahiti's deadly Teahupoo.
Irons was obviously a major talent, and over the years he earned a loyal following for his go-big style. He was the most fearless surfer at some of the world's heaviest breaks, often riding deep inside the tube at dangerous spots like Pipeline and Teahupoo. But he was still skilled enough at riding small waves to win at every stop on the World Tour. No other surfer offered such a complete packageâ??except Kelly Slater, holder of a record ten surfing world championships.
But by the time Irons joined the elite ranks of the ASP World Tour, in 1998, he had also developed a reputation for wild behavior off the water. The tour, a judged ten-event global road trip for the sportâ??s best competitors, includes plenty of downtime, and Irons made the most of it. He also finished 34th and barely requalified after the 1999 season.
"Rumor was that he was riding the party train too hard," says Matt Warshaw, author of The History of Surfing, an exhaustive chronicle about the sport. Where college freshmen had frat parties, Andy had money to burn and groupies at every stop. As World Tour competitor Taj Burrow put it in a recent promotional video for Billabong: "Everywhere we go, it's their biggest night of the year. You can't help but get involved."
Off the tour, Irons ran with the Wolf Pack, a fearsome group of Kauai surfers who enforced localism at their home breaksâ??often with their fists. "Early on, Andy didn't have handlers," says Chris Mauro, a former editor of Surfer. "He had his crew."
By the 2001 World Tour, Irons had signed a sponsorship deal with Australian clothing company Billabong for a reported $650,000 per year. Far from mellowing, he achieved antihero status, and many fans loved him for it. "Andy was loud and in your face," says former World Tour surfer Shea Lopez, a close friend. "He was the rock star of surfing."
Like other hard-charging celebrities, Irons didn't necessarily see himself growing old. "He wanted to die young," surfer Koby Abberton recently told Australia's Stab magazine. "He knew it. Everyone knew it."
In 2002, when Kelly Slater returned to competition after a three-year hiatus, the assumption was that he would mop up. Far from it. Irons beat Slater and claimed the world title that year. Then he did it again in 2003 and 2004. "Andy Irons was the only worthy rival to the greatest surfer who's ever set foot on a board," says Warshaw.
Until a surfer other than Irons or Slater wonâ??in 2007, the year Mick Fanning took the crownâ??that rivalry was heated and often extended beyond the waves. It also divided the surf world. You were either for Slater, the clean-living, Chomsky-quoting role model who competed in a white wetsuit, or you were for Irons, the cocky upstart who wore black and loved to talk trash.
"That time was a real pressure cooker for both of us," Slater now says of those days. "I felt like it was going to break me. I don't know what that was like for Andy."
"Andy really dreaded it after a while," says John Irons, Andy's Hanalei-based uncle. "He called it 'the circus.' Everywhere he'd go, people were hounding him. Everybody wanted something."
Still, Irons often gave. "We went on a trip to Cabo a couple years ago," recalls surf writer Jake Howard, of ESPN.com. "Kids came up and started asking him for stuff. He didn't have anything, so he literally gave one kid the shirt off his back."
Despite his abrasive public image, Irons was no prima donna. "Andy was a world champ, but he was one of us," says Lopez. "He would pile in the back of a Ford Ranger that had no seat, with three other guys."
For Irons, the world tour seemed to offer redemption. "It was so positive," says Brewer. "I just wonder where it went wrong again."
OUTWARDLY, THINGS BEGAN to break down during the 2005 season, when Slater won his seventh title. Irons still put up a fight, finishing second in 2005 and 2006, but signs had emerged that the pressure was getting to him, and his temper became legendary. After losing to friends at poker on a 2005 boat trip, he threw a laptop into the Pacific. During surf competitions, he raged through the competitors' areas after poor heats, at least once smashing his surfboard.
In late 2007, Irons was out of the running for the world title, which would wrap up in December, and rumors of his substance abuse were swirling inside the surf industry and on Internet discussion forums. "It became the elephant in the room," said Brewer. "Hearsay was that it was OxyContin."
In other sports, narcoticsâ??and performance enhancersâ??would show up in tests. But the ASP doesn't conduct drug testing. The organization does allow event sponsors and governing bodies for host countries to conduct them, but it wouldn't comment on whether Irons was ever officially tested.
In November 2007, Irons and his longtime girlfriend, Lyndie Dupuis, got married on Kauai. Around that time, editors at various surf magazines got word that Irons had been in rehab and wanted to come clean publicly. But if a disclosure was planned, Irons never followed through.
"There was certainly internal knowledge that wasn't made public," says Evan Slater, former editor of Surfer and Surfing magazines. "In our world, you sort of look the other way, because it's a tight community."
Many industry insiders suggest it was the sponsors who scuttled Irons's plan to go public. After the near-death incident in Indonesia, Brewer said, one of Irons's then-sponsors asked him point-blank to keep quiet. "I was asked not to say anything to anybody," said Brewer. "I said to them, 'Well, are you going to keep an eye on the guy?' Maybe because of the amount of money he was making for that companyâ??and from that companyâ??it became an oversight, and nobody looked into it. Nobody cared."
One official with a former sponsor, who asked not to be named, acknowledges that his company was aware of Irons's substance abuse. "It was pretty apparent," he says. But he denies hiding it. "Do we advertise certain parts of our athletes' behavior? No. But do we actually cover it up? No." Billabong CEO Paul Naude declined to comment on whether his company knew of Irons's drug use.
Andy's father, Phil Irons, reached by cell phone on Kauai, wouldn't talk about it, either. "Those are problems that a lot of people go through," he said. "They're nothing to be brought up. Ever."
If Irons did decide to keep quiet, the decision seems puzzling in some ways. Other surfers have come clean in the past and actually boosted their public image as a result. Big-wave riders Peter Mel and Darryl "Flea" Virostko recently opened up about their use of methamphetamines. And Irons's own mentor, Billabong team rider Mark Occhilupo, bared his soul about kicking a cocaine habit before mounting a comeback in 1997.
Acquaintances say Irons did make private admissions. "He definitely came clean with his friends," says a source close to Irons. "He was totally open with me to the point where he said, 'Me and every housewife in America.' Then he was like, 'Fuck, the crazy thing is that people think things are way worse than they are.' He'd read the chat rooms."
Whatever treatment Andy received, John Irons says it helped. "Did it change his life? Yes. He was amped to get back on the tour. He was refocused and ready to go."
Kelly Slater recalls a conversation with Irons from around 2007. "A couple of years ago, he had an awakening in his life about things," says Slater. "We had one real deep talk. He said how excited he was to be feeling everythingâ??to be feeling his emotions and understanding them. For him, that was a new lease on his life."
BUT IF IRONS WAS ON an uptick in 2007, it didn't last. His erratic behavior returned in September 2008, when he went missing during a World Tour contest in France. He surfed badly in one heat and then failed to show up for the next. He finished the year 13th overall but decided not to compete in 2009. "We encouraged Andy to take a year off," says BillaÂbong's Naude, "because he had lost the desire to be on the tour."
Irons told friends that he'd almost been dropped by Billabong. According to Mike Reola, a friend and co-founder of the clothing company Lost, Irons said that "everyone at Billabong wanted me gone when I was off tour" and that "Paul Naude was the only one who fought for me." Irons also told friends that he took a substantial pay cut.
Asked to confirm that Irons had taken a cut, Naude said he couldn't recall, adding that "in terms of redoing his deal, we never had any issues, so Iâ??m assuming everyone was happy."
This year was supposed to be the start of a comeback for Irons. Before the season started in February, he traveled to Australia to work with fitness trainer Wes Berg. But as the year began, Irons was quickly eliminated in the first four events.
Slater, who by that time had become close to Irons, says that Irons had confided in him. "He said, 'I'm having a lot of trouble wanting to be at contests and caring about this.'" Irons told other friends he felt trapped, because he believed that surfing on tour, which he didn't really like, was his only viable career option.
Meanwhile, his roller-coaster life continued. At the Nike 6.0 Lowers Pro surf contestâ?? a non-tour event held last May in San Clemente, Californiaâ??he surfed "as good as he'd ever surfed," according to Shea Lopez, and tied for third. But in June, when watch company Nixon hosted an annual event on the Fijian resort island of Tavarua, Irons's substance issues resurfaced.
Irons, who was accompanied by Lyndie, didn't surf much during the trip, though when he did paddle out to the island's fabled Cloudbreak, he scored the best rides of the day, tucking into the barrel for ten seconds at a time. Toward the trip's end, Irons began exhibiting strange behavior. "He tried to fight one of his close friends over something weird," says a guest who was there. Irons even called out the fellow surfer in the restaurant one night at dinner. Then, as the group was partying on the last night of the trip, Irons allegedly became violent.
The witness was told by others on hand that drugs were involved, but added that the scene didn't feature the standard trappings of a recreational-drug party. "It's not like in the old days, where thereâ??s a room in the back with mounds of coke," he said. "Now, people pass around pills."
At one point, a friend went back to Irons's room, then returned to the party, saying that Irons had tried to start a fight with him. When others went to investigate, it took two surfersâ??one a former Navy SEAL, who was the trip's doctor, and the other a cage fighterâ??to restrain Irons, who was in a rage. Ultimately, he was sedated. "It's hard to explain how ugly it was," says the hotel guest. "Everyone was baffled."
Several sources indicate that Irons cleaned himself up after the incident on Fiji. By the time the World Tour came to Tahiti in September, he was sufficiently fit and focused to storm through heats and win. He was ecstatic, saying after the event: "My whole dream was to come back and just win one contest. I've done that now. I want more."
THOUGH IRONS'S FINAL DAYS are still shrouded in mystery, it's possible to piece together the main events. He arrived in Puerto Rico on the evening of October 27, but when his three-man heat hit the water midday on October 30, he wasn't there. After Irons failed to show, fellow competitors and members of the media immediately grew suspicious. "We'd all heard he was sickâ??stomach flu, fevers, something. Nobody knew what to believe," says ESPNâ??s Jake Howard.
Round-one heats on the tour aren't elimination rounds, so Irons was scheduled to surf the next day, October 31. Again he failed to show, and this time he called World Tour manager Renato Hickel to formally withdraw. Irons complained of flu-like symptoms and, as Hickel put it to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, "said he'd rather have a doctor come to see him because he was sick."
Irons was seen by a physician at his rented apartment in Isabela, a five-minute drive from the contest site. It's unclear what he was treated for, but it's known that a flu had been going around among surfers. Irons was taken to the airport on Sunday evening, where he was to begin his long trip back to Hawaii.
He arrived in Miami on Sunday night. A Billabong spokesperson told an Australian reporter that Irons had spent "two days" on an IV drip in Miami, which now seems unlikely. Sunday night was Halloween, and Irons, faced with an overnight layover, left the airport and headed for South Beach, according to one person he contacted that night by phone. Irons said he was "on Ninth and Ocean," had a "backpack and a wallet full of cash," and wanted to have some fun. He was connected with friends and went to a party.
Irons "had a few drinks," this person says, and at four in the morning he was placed in a cab and taken to Miami International Airport. His flight for Dallas left at 6:30 A.M.
In the days immediately following Irons's death, it was reported that, in Dallas, an extremely ill Irons had attempted to board his connecting flight to Honolulu at 11:30 that morning but was turned away at an American Airlines gateâ??a claim the company denies.
"American Airlines did not refuse or deny travel at any point for Mr. Irons," says airline spokesman Tim Smith. He says a female family memberâ??who identified herself as Irons's wifeâ??called two hours before the flight left, said he was sick, and canceled his ticket, rescheduling him for the same flight the next day.
Irons's flight to Dallas arrived at 8:35 A.M. on Monday, November 1. The Grand Hyatt at DFW is located inside Terminal D, so he was able to check in to his room by 8:47. He opened the door to Room 324 at 8:59, ate a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, drank a bottle of Evian, and downed a couple of soft drinks. He never opened the door again. The next morning, Isaac Ambriz, a security employee with the hotel, was informed by the hotel operator that Irons wasn't answering his wake-up calls. At 9:43, Ambriz arrived at the room.
"[I] knock and announce, but there was no answer," Ambriz said in a statement to police. "I enter the room and notice Mr. Irons in bed. I call out his name and knock on the wall several more times." At 9:47, Ambriz called his supervisor, Crystal Montero. The two entered the room, and Montero, as she told police, "went to the right side of the bed and turned on the right bed lamp. At that moment, I noticed Mr. Irons not breathing."
IN THEIR INVESTIGATION, airport police said that Irons had been found lying on his back with a sheet pulled to his neck, the bed's sheets and pillows "neatly set" and with nothing "out of the ordinary." Police noted that Irons's prescriptions for both Xanax and Ambien had been filled on October 26, 2010, the day before Irons arrived in Puerto Rico.
Despite Irons's history of substance abuse and reports of illness, one can only speculate about what killed him, and it may be that a tragic combination of, say, dengue fever and prescription drugs did him in. Irons had been bouncing around time zones, had gone without sleep, had been drinking in Miami, and, at least according to his wife, was ill on the inbound flight to Dallas.
Dr. Bruce Goldberger, director of toxicology at the University of Florida medical school, says combinations like this can be dangerous. "The usual doses of Ambien and Xanax are very safe, even when taken together," he says. "But if there was an underlying medical condition like pneumonia or sleep apnea, the person would be at greater risk. Sometimes, we see deaths with perfectly healthy people when they take a small amount more of the medication than prescribed."
Notably, Irons had been diagnosed as suffering from sleep apnea. Goldberger added that if methadone were added to the mix, the situation would be much more risky.
In the days following Irons's death, fans all over the world held paddle-out services to celebrate his legacy, and friends were left to wonder if Irons really would have thrown it all away with something as foolish as a drug overdose. "A lot of us were pretty hopeful that having a son was going to be a major turning point in his life," says one friend of the Irons family. "I've seen Andy be good and bad, but the one thing that cut through all the shit with him was that he was so excited to be a dad."
No matter what information emerges from the medical examiner's office, Irons's life wonâ??t be completely defined by a toxicology report. Instead, when his son wants to learn about his father, he'll be told of a complex man who lived hard and fast, who relished his role in surfing but hated the fame that attended it, and who struggled mightily to overcome problems that he was never able to talk about.
No doubt he'll be told this as well: in a life marked by turmoil, riding waves brought Andy Irons a fleeting sense of peace. Surfing, he once said, "is the closest thing you can feel to being kissed by God."