Death of a Champion: Andy Irons 1978-2010

You should also check out the post above - Memorial Tribute to Andy Irons
But be careful, you'll probably cry.
I did.

The unthinkable has happened in professional surfing. The young man who brought a new athleticism and 21st Century upgrade to the sport of kings is dead. At just 32 years old. It’s hard to say because it still doesn’t seem real a week later, but three-time world champ Andy Irons is dead. Here begins the what ifs.
He didn’t die in an exotic, far away place on a surfing trip. He didn’t die in massive waves or rough conditions. He didn’t die in competition at all. Not even in the water, which for most surfers, is the place they’d want to go out.

Andy Irons, one of surfing’s greatest champions, died alone and hurting in a Dallas airport hotel room, hundreds of miles from the ocean. And it seems unfair, cruel even, because he’d earned something better than that. The cruelty is that it came just weeks before the birth of his first child.

Despite various news stories and a certain air of mystery currently surrounding his death, it’s fair to say at this point that his death was related to Dengue fever. For those who don’t know, Dengue fever is an illness transmitted by mosquitoes in the tropical regions of the world. The World Health Organization estimates there might be 50 million cases each year and it considers the disease an epidemic in more than 100 countries.

It can appear like a bad case of the flu at first, and then get worse, with symptoms including fever, severe headache, muscle and joint pain, rash around the body, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Even in recovery, symptoms can include prolonged fatigue and depression. If the infection advances to Dengue hemorrhagic fever, internal and external bleeding can occur, causing blood pressure to fall. Given the laundry list of possible symptoms, Irons’ final trek from Puerto Rico to Dallas seems superhuman.

The facts of Irons’ last few days are mostly known at this point:

He withdrew from the Rip Curl contest in Puerto Rico on Saturday, Oct. 30, due to what were described then as severe flu-like symptoms. He left Puerto Rico Sunday, Oct. 31 and took an American Airlines flight from Miami to Dallas, a scheduled stopover on his flight back to Hawaii. Shortly after boarding the connecting flight in Dallas, he was removed from the plane. Irons himself or a family member rescheduled the connecting flight for Tuesday morning and Irons checked in to the airport’s Grand Hyatt Hotel. When Irons didn’t respond to a wake-up call Tuesday morning Nov. 2, hotel staff brought police in for a “welfare check.” Irons didn’t respond to a knock on the door and police entered to find Irons on his back in bed with the covers up to his neck. Rigor mortis had already set in.

This is a death profound and far reaching. The surfing industry and the surfing world has never dealt with the loss of a competitor as young, active and high profile as Andy Irons. There is simply nothing – not even the heroic death of Hawaii’s Eddie Aikau in 1978 – that has prepared the surf world to deal with this.

The most apt comparison was made by an Irons’ family friend.

“The North Shore felt like it was 9/11,” the friend said.

And just like the collective mindset after the Sept. 11 attacks, no one knows exactly how to feel, what to say or what to do. Nothing feels quite right. A mass of people are simply dumbfounded and caught so completely off guard, it’s hard to figure out how to go forward.

Now like then, some things have helped ease the pain. Memorial paddle outs in Puerto Rico, Bali and Australia and a massive one scheduled for Hawaii with an expected 3,000 people, give proper tribute to a fallen brother and icon. Nature demonstrated its emotion for an island son too, as rain fell in Hawaii for five consecutive days from the announcement of his death, an element surely adding to Irons’ legend.

And for certain, surfers around the world dedicated a wave or a session to him, raised a glass or will name their child in his honor.

But beyond these things, what next?

Andy Irons’ legacy will be defined better in time, but his ascendency to the upper reaches of pro surfing’s world champion club came after years on the radar as a hotshot teen surfer, and 1998 World Junior champ. He made his mark not only as part of a new group of acrobatic surfers, but as a rarity among champions. His tall, muscular frame and all-American good looks often made him look more like captain of the football team than a guy who caught waves for money. He was no “Spicoli.” And his arrival was the right thing at the right time for surfing. Irons was a surfer to his core and 100 percent Hawaiian in his soul and offered the surfing world an exciting new face when the sport and industry were working hard to expand beyond their usual boundaries and Kelly Slater had gone into semi-retirement. AI, as he was nicknamed, brought a new athleticism and adrenaline to the world tour as one of the most powerfully versatile surfers of his generation.

And perhaps most memorably, he was the one guy who could beat Slater outright. And repeatedly. As Irons said, “He’s just another human.” He was the hero for the anti-Slater set and was so far, the only legitimate rival to Slater’s towering dominance, winning world titles in 2002, 2003 and 2004. And though the rivalry eventually cooled into a friendship, even Irons’ passing provided one last thorn in Slater’s side. The incredible achievement of Slater winning his 10th world title at the same Rip Curl event in Puerto Rico from which Irons had withdrawn a few days earlier, was clearly overshadowed by Irons’ death. And Slater, rightfully so, declared that he wouldn’t have returned from that brief retirement and eventually pushed himself to a handful of additional titles without being inspired by how Irons had pumped new life into the men’s tour.

Irons was an athlete enjoying something of a professional comeback and personal renaissance. After a sabbatical from the tour in 2009, he returned this season a competitor more at peace with himself and a married man about to be a father. But he hadn’t softened much. Ninth place finishes at Bell’s Beach, Jeffries Bay and a victory at Teahupoo proved it. The day he died he was ranked a respectable 16th.

With the surf world still lurching to put meaning to a heartbreak never suffered before, Andy Irons’ untimely death does raise important questions that the surfing industry and the world’s fraternity of surfers and water lovers will have to figure out.

I offer these questions with no answers, and nothing implied, except perhaps the possibility that something somehow positive can be made out of the end of a young man’s life.

*Will ASP re-examine how it deals with the medical issues of athletes on tour, furthermore, how might the brands look at medical issues for their athletes?

*Has pro surfing been dodging bullets for years because no previous high profile tour member has died or nearly died from dengue?

*Will pro surfers take better care to avoid dengue and other tropical diseases?

*How will the death of a 32-year-old, three-time world champ affect the other athletes on the men’s and women’s tours?

*How will this affect Andy’s younger brother Bruce, a gifted surfer in his own right, and Andy’s widow Lyndie and her child?

*How will international surf media deal with it?

*At what point could AI memorial products of any kind cross over from tribute to exploitation?

*Will event organizers rethink how they run contests in regions where viruses like dengue are a threat; consequently, how will it affect efforts to expand pro surfing in the third world?

*Could the demise of a prominent professional athlete from Dengue fever lead to better awareness and consequent efforts to control and fight a disease running rampant in the tropical third world?

*If there is anything to be learned from this, what would Andy want it to be?

Photos courtesy ASP/Billabong

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