Irons’ death brings surfing community even closer together

November 5, 2010

SURFING/Surf culture has always been a fairly close-knit community, and competitive surfing even more so.

In surfing there are no billion-dollar franchises, huge television contracts, or teams of agents and lawyers. There’s barely any press at even the biggest surf events, no monster stadiums, or multi-year contracts. No trades. No playoffs. No paparazzi or rumor mills.

And the truth is, surfers prefer it that way. Not many kids will ever get the chance to shoot hoops with LeBron. And not many will ever kick a ball with Ronaldo. But any surfer can journey down to Florida’s Sebastian Inlet for a chance to share a wave with Kelly Slater.

And any kid can head to the Pinetrees on Hawaii’s North Shore for a chance ride with Andy Irons. Or at least could. The three-times world surfing champion was found dead on Tuesday in a Dallas hotel room.

For the last 15 years Slater and Irons had dominated competitive surfing. Kelly was first, bursting on to the scene in early ‘92 with his perfect drops and unreal speed. In short order he proved there’d never been anything on the seas quite like him.

Slater rode harder and faster than anyone, and brought with him a technical mastery the sport didn’t even realize it was missing. He was untouchable. For a long time the ASP World Tour was pretty much the Kelly Slater show.

Then along came Andy. He grew up idolizing Kelly, but whereas most would crumble when they paddled out with the master, Andy seemed to relish it. Some even said he seemed calmer competing against Kelly than he did just riding among friends.

Andy was Slater’s only real competition for years, besting him to the top of the WSP ranking in 2002, 2003 and 2004. No one could layback like Andy. Or hack like him. He could dazzle on the highest wave or the shortest one.

His rivalry with Kelly, though short in the grand scheme of things, was the subject of incessant chatter up and down every coastline for years. Some stores would even post how many Kelly versus Irons highlight reels they’d sold that month, as though it was some sort of contest, like the Stones versus the Beatles or long boards versus short.

Kelly was one of hundreds to paddle out in the Kauai waters for Andy’s memorial. The two had become close over recent years, dining regularly with their wives, and rumor has it, discussing just about anything so long as surfing never came up.

They made each other better, Kelly and Andy. Not just at the dinner table, but out in the water too. They made the sport better – the two of them, studying one another, mimicking each other, revising and competing; always competing.

Surfing has always been just a small sport that happens to be played across the biggest, wettest arena in the world. The stars are still known by their first names, and the community is just small enough that everyone knows everyone by six degrees. Tales get passed down across beaches everywhere. Stories of the rights at J-Bay, sudden 30-footers off Trestles, or a fabled perfect path at Teahupoo.

Andy was in a lot of those stories. News of his death, at just 32, has shaken the community to the core. The healing will be slow, with the circumstances surrounding his death making the process even harder. Andy always said surfing kept his demons away, that he always came out of the water a better man than when he went in.

Not only did he come out better, but the sport came out better too.

PHOTO: Andy Irons of Hawaii rides a wave during the third round of competition in the Billabong Pro surfing tournament on the legendary reef break in Teahupoo, Tahiti, May 14, 2008. REUTERS/Joseba Etxaburu.

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