The story of Andy Irons is part-triumph, part-tragedy. A tortured soul, who spent the majority of his life battling the demons of bipolar disorder and drug addiction, he still managed to become world champion three times and gave the state of Hawaii a hero to be proud of. He also changed the sport of surfing forever.
Growing up in Kauai, he and younger brother Bruce took to the water from a young age. Andy got his first surfboard for Christmas at the age of six, and when their father moved to a house less than 100 yards from the beach following his divorce from their mother, the youngsters needed no second invitation to head out surfing whenever they liked.
But Bruce knew from a young age that Andy had a more complicated existence, as he explains in the outstanding Amazon Prime documentary ‘Kissed By God’, which tells the story of Andy’s life. “He had a lot of things going on in his mind, good and bad,” Bruce explains. “My brother was unorthodox, wild. You never knew what you were going to get.”
Andy was assigned a special education teacher at high school, where his manic behaviour would often be a cause for concern. With an inability to rationalise his thoughts and actions, Andy would tell friends and family “I’m just stupid, I can’t learn,” but out in the ocean he found a release. “Me and my brother would just surf, surf, surf, and I think that’s where we blocked out what was going on at home,” says Bruce.
As a teenager, Andy spent much of his time trying to emulate moves he’d seen a young Kelly Slater perform in the film ‘Kelly Slater in Black and White’, and before long his prowess would see him offered lucrative contracts by surf sponsors.
Soon he won promotion to the World Championship Tour, as one of the top 32 surfers on the planet, and found himself competing against his idol Slater. Yet there would be pitfalls along the way, and Andy quickly went off the rails. After being diagnosed as bipolar, he dropped off the tour for a while.
Life changed for Andy on his 21st birthday in 1999 as he celebrated on a boat in Indonesia. After sniffing a line of morphine he had mistaken for cocaine, friends left him to sleep off his excesses before realising he was lifeless. By the time they had managed to get him to the hospital, Andy’s lung had collapsed. He was placed in intensive care, where he flatlined for a full eight minutes.
After recovering, surfing once more became his salvation.
“Usually once I get in the water and come back out I feel better no matter what’s going on,” he explains in interview footage during the Amazon documentary. “It’s almost like therapy or something. Surfing has been there for me through good, bad, parents getting divorced… it don’t matter, brother being a prick… it don’t matter. When you go surfing and do a good turn, it feels as good as your first turn.”
Back in the ocean, he immediately went about making his mark. After getting back on the World Tour, his confidence was surging. By 2002 he had claimed his first World Championship, barely three years after spending eight minutes on his deathbed.
One year on came the battle which would change the sport of surfing. Irons and Slater would share centre stage throughout the calendar, with the lead in the championship going this way and that between the pair. Slater was a six-time champion but had a new foe. “Up until 2002, he wasn’t the guy to beat,” Slater says of Irons. “But in 2003 there was no one else in the picture."
Irons won the final heat to clinch the world title in a result that altered surfing forever. His wild-child persona gave the sport a new icon, while Slater took the opportunity to go back to the drawing board and become even better, raising the bar further. Irons would win the crown again the following year, for a three-peat success which has not been matched since. But it would also be his last world title.
After being pipped to the title in 2005 following a controversial judging decision on Slater’s last ride, the pressure began to really show on Irons. His wife, Lyndie, said he watched the final heat on repeat around 1000 times and admits she believes the episode to have broken him.
He began partying to even greater excess than before, and stopped surfing almost completely as a result. Searching for normality through excess once more, opioid addiction followed.
“All I did was beg him to surf, because I thought that surfing would make him happy, but it was far more than surfing that was torturing him mentally,” explains Lyndie.
While he won countless events high on various drugs, it was the beginning of the end of his surfing career. His sponsors sent him to rehab in a bid to help straighten him out, but he would soon be back in a deeply troubled state. There were times he couldn’t even paddle, doubting absolutely everything about his technique, his troubled mind, his entire life.
A temporary relocation to Australia for a year and impending fatherhood helped him to refocus, with another surfing event success before retirement his major goal. He did get another event victory under his belt but by the end of 2010, at the age of 32, Andy Irons would be dead.
After falling ill on a flight back from an event in Puerto Rico, Andy was checked in to a Dallas airport hotel rather than being placed on his connecting flight heading for Kauai. He didn’t make it through the night. A post-mortem found that he’d had a heart attack, with acute mixed drug ingestion also cited for his sudden passing. At the time of his death, Lyndie was eight months pregnant with the couple’s first child. He left her - and, through her, his son Axel - with an enormous sense of pride. Kelly Slater too.
“A year and a half before he died, he told me he was making a documentary about the changes and lessons in his life, and he wanted to help any kids that had ever looked up to him and struggled in their lives, because he now knew what was possible,” Slater wrote for The Inertia in 2011. “He was so clear and happy and confident and positive. We had our first and only real one-on-one, heart-to-heart talk. I actually welled up with tears for how proud I was of him.”
There is a lot to take from Andy Irons’ later years, but for the larger part of his life he proved to be an icon for many people struggling with addiction and mental health troubles.
He spent his entire life wanting to feel normal, feel like a success, and for three amazing years he had crushed the overwhelming odds dealt to him by his inner demons to become the undisputed king of surfing.