Andy Irons, the surfing champion whose rivalry with Kelly Slater galvanized the sport, recently told friends he no longer wanted to die young. But he did, yesterday, of reported complications from dengue fever. One of them may have been a methadone overdose.
Irons, a 32-year-old born-and-bred Hawaiian who won the world surfing title in 2002, 2003, and 2004, withdrew from a surfing competition in Puerto Rico this weekend, complaining that he had contracted dengue fever while competing in Portugal. He returned to Miami and had planned to fly home to Hawaii, where he lived with his seven-month-pregnant wife Lyndie, on Monday.
According to Australia's Surfing Life magazine, Irons grew progressively more ill, missed his connecting flight in Dallas, and checked into a nearby Grand Hyatt. The next morning hotel staff found him dead in his bed after he failed to answer a wake-up call.
Investigators said that methadone was found inside a prescription container for zolpidem, a sleeping pill, on his nightstand, and are awaiting toxicology reports to determine whether an overdose of methadone may have caused his death.
It makes sense that Irons might have turned to such a powerful painkiller: the symptoms of dengue fever can include severe headaches, eye pain, joint paint, and muscle/bone pain in addition to a high fever. But while "rumors have persisted in the surf industry for years that Irons has struggled at times with substance abuse," according to the San Francisco Chronicle, "none of the rumors have been substantiated."
Puerto Rico has seen a record-setting outbreak of dengue fever this year, causing the death of nearly 30 people. But it's likely that Irons did indeed contract the illness in Portugal. While WebMD notes that "there is no dengue outbreak there or in Western Europe" currently, The Australian quotes surfer Owen Wright as saying "there has been a bout of this going round from Portugal." (Kelly Slater's girlfriend Kalani Miller was sick too, according to the story.)
Whatever the cause, Andy Irons's devastating death comes right as Kelly Slater, his longtime surfing rival, is widely expected to become the first surfer to win 10 world titles. It's worth mentioning: Slater's history-making dominance came about both because and in spite of Irons's, and the two defined each other for the better part of a decade.
A 2006 Play Magazine feature by Daniel Duane on the duo noted that the young, brash Irons had been "the first competitor in years to disrespect Slater publicly, and certainly the only one to back up his taunts," but explained that "Irons has been an extraordinary gift to Slater, provoking in the older surfer an utterly unexpected second act." (The whole piece is well worth your time.)
And in his lovely tribute to Irons, ESPN's Jake Howard describes the pair's years-long battle:
In 2002, just as Andy was about to begin his three years atop the rankings, then six-time world champion Kelly Slater emerged from semi-retirement. Slater had walked away from the tour in 1999, having already achieved six world titles. But in 2002 he opted to get back in the game and see what he had left. He couldn't have picked a better time, at least from the perspective of the world's surf fans.
Slater, still coping with the passing of his father, was never in position to vie for the title in '02, but by '03 it was on. Assumptions that a focused Slater would easily earn title number seven were derailed by an on-fire Andy, who had other ideas. The rivalry born that year went on to take its place among the greatest in sport: think Ali versus Frasier [sic], Magic versus Bird, Federer versus Nadal.
In 2006, Irons and Slater engaged in what Howard calls "arguably the greatest heat in competitive surfing history." (Video is below, or click here.) On the strength of a huge "Backdoor bomb," Irons scored a perfect 10 to come from behind and win the event. (Slater had already mathematically won the eventual world title.)
The 2006 ride showcased what Irons did best: throw himself fearlessly, beautifully, cockily into the same hometown Hawaiian surf that he grew up tackling with his brother, Bruce, also a professional surfer.
Most tragic is the fact that Irons is survived by his wife of three years, Lyndie, pregnant with the couple's first child — a son. According to Koby Abberton, a childhood friend of the Irons brothers, the unborn boy had recently changed Irons' outlook on life.
Koby added that Andy, "wanted to die young. He knew it. Everyone kinda knew it. I think he wanted to be remembered like Elvis. Then, with his boy being born soon, he called and he was like, 'I take it all back, I take it all back. I wanna be there for my boy.' Just recently, Andy seemed like he'd been at peace with himself. He said to me, 'I've done everything I wanted to do.'"
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