The last victory of his life may have been Andy Irons's most gratifying. After edging nine-time world champion Kelly Slater in the semifinals at September's Billabong Pro Teahupoo, in Tahiti, Irons defeated C.J. Hobgood in the final, then dedicated the win to his pregnant wife, Lyndie.
A three-time world champ (2002, '03, '04) once known as the planet's best surfer, Irons had missed most of the '09 season for personal reasons. Surfing had become work, he explained. The win at Teahupoo made it clear that the passion was back. "I have a lot of inner demons," he said in a recent video. "If I didn't have surfing to get those out of my system, I would self-destruct."
Two months later, on Nov. 2, Irons was found dead in his bed in a Dallas--Fort Worth hotel. Ill with suspected dengue fever, he'd pulled out of the Rip Curl Pro contest in Puerto Rico and was headed home to Kauai. Too weak to board his connecting flight, Irons checked into a hotel and died in the night. Police ruled out foul play but found Xanax, Ambien and methadone in his room. The results of toxicology tests are weeks away. Irons was 32.
It was his fate to have his best years bookended by Slater, who won six ASP world titles before Irons hit his peak. After coming out of retirement in 2002, Slater won four more world titles, clinching the most recent of those last Saturday at the Rip Curl Pro. "If it weren't for him," said Slater, fighting back tears, "I wouldn't be in this position today."
The two pushed each other to heights they might not otherwise have achieved. "Andy had more versatility than anyone this side of Slater," says surfing historian Matt Warshaw. "And in certain conditions, like those waves in Indonesia or Pipeline or Teahupoo, "he was a natural. Those were the waves he grew up on." And the waves on which he earned his final victory.