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Thursday, August 21, 2014         

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Legacy of Pride

Andy Irons, who was found dead yesterday in a Dallas hotel room, rose from the waves of Kauai to become an international star

By Jason Kaneshiro

POSTED:


Andy Irons' death yesterday left a state stunned and a sport shaken by the loss of a surfing legend.

Irons emerged from Kauai's shores to achieve iconic status within the surfing community -- locally and internationally -- even before reaching age 30 and was remembered for his role as an ambassador for Hawaii and the sport along with his three world championships.

"Andy could go to Europe, he could go to South America, or he could go to Australia and he was recognized as being a Hawaii sportsman," said Randy Rarick, executive director of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing.

"The legacy he leaves behind is that of pride for Hawaii as someone who carried the flag for Hawaii in the world of surfing."

Irons, 32, reached surfing's pinnacle in the last decade, establishing himself as one of the sport's most recognized figures as a three-time Association of Surfing Professionals world champion and four-time Vans Triple Crown of Surfing winner.

Through it all, Kauai remained home and word of his death yesterday -- while en route back to the Garden Isle -- sent shockwaves through the surfing community.

"Right now I can't even breathe. I am absolutely in a state of shock," said Bernie Baker, longtime contest director for the Triple Crown and an amateur contest judge for some three decades. "I can't quite see straight because I've lost more than just a great Hawaii athlete and friend. I feel like I've lost a very, very close member of my family."

Irons was returning home after withdrawing from the Rip Curl Pro Search in Puerto Rico due to illness. He was found at the Grand Hyatt Hotel at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, where he had checked in during a layover on his way to Kauai.

Irons was found in bed by hotel workers when he failed to respond to a wake-up call, according to the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office. Emergency personnel pronounced him dead at 9:46 a.m.

According to a statement released by the ASP, Irons had been "battling dengue fever, a viral disease." The medical examiner's office said it is investigating his death as a possible overdose of methadone, a powerful controlled substance used for pain. An autopsy is scheduled for today.

Dengue fever is a viral illness transmitted by mosquitoes in tropical climates. Symptoms include intense headaches and joint pain.

His family departed yesterday afternoon for Dallas. His wife, Lyndie, is seven months pregnant with the couple's first child.

"It's just such a major loss," said Rick Irons, Andy's uncle. "We were very proud of him as a family. Just naturally gifted ability and just a blessing for all of the family. That's what his real gift was.

"We'll miss him very much. You don't think about that happening to a healthy, vibrant, 32-year-old surf champion. He'll really be missed. ... He was a growing young man, full of anticipation and hope for the future."

Billabong, an international apparel company that sponsored Irons, posted a statement on its Web site.

"Andy was one of the greatest surfers of our time. More than that, he was a much-loved son, a devoted husband and a soon-to-be father. The thoughts of all Billabong employees worldwide are with wife Lyndie and Andy's family at this most devastating time."

Irons' father, Phil, and six uncles were surfers and Andy's comfort on the waves was evident early on in sessions along Kauai's shores while growing up in Hanalei.

"When he was younger he was just that much better than everybody else," said Rick Irons, who serves as pastor of Calvary Chapel Central Oahu. "He just had a gift. He had the natural ability to surf and make it look easy."

Ben Aipa, himself a prominent surfing figure, coached with Town and Country when he first met Irons and his brother, Bruce, and was among those who helped mentor Andy.

His memory flashed to that moment in Haleiwa when he happened upon two youngsters warming themselves on the sand during the annual menehune surf contest on the North Shore.

"These two guys sitting on the beach, long blond hair, looking at the ocean," said Aipa. "I'm walking down and I just go, 'Eh where you guys from?' Both of them turned around and said, 'Kauai.'

"A lot of kids, they have it in them and all they need is just some direction. But some kids really absorb the direction."

Irons progressed through the amateur ranks and qualified for the ASP World Tour in 1997, a year after graduating from Kapaa High School.

In 2002, Irons' talent and potential crystallized into his first world championship. He successfully defended his titles the next two years, his duels with nine-time world champion Kelly Slater becoming defining moments in surfing's growth early in the decade.

"He was really the only guy who could take Kelly down," Rarick said. "And the pride of a guy from Hawaii being able to beat the world champion and going on to be a three-time world champion himself is something very inspiring for future generations."

The world championships highlighted a resume that included 20 ASP World Tour titles and the Triple Crown four times between 2002 and 2006.

The accolades elevated Irons to elite status in the sport's history, but those who most closely followed his career said his legacy is most clearly evident in the young surfers who took to the waves after watching him perform.

"Both Andy and Bruce, when they were in their early teens were really the mold for all of the great kids that are out there today from Hawaii," Baker said.

Andy Irons' schedule had slowed in the past two years, but he had returned to the tour and was expected to compete in the Triple Crown again this month.

The three-event series on the North Shore opens with the Reef Hawaiian Pro, starting Nov. 12 in Haleiwa and continues into December with the O'Neill World Cup of Surfing and Billabong Pipe Masters.

"Because he's already on the World Tour, the only event he needed to compete in was the Pipeline Masters," Rarick said. "But he wanted to surf at Haleiwa, Sunset and Pipeline to give it another go and another shot at winning another Triple Crown."

Still, Irons' Kauai roots remained firm, and he'd annually returned to host the Irons Brothers Pinetrees Classic with Bruce the last nine years, giving kids on the Garden Isle a chance to compete in the waves that cultivated his love for the sport.

"Andy was one of them who always knew where the foundation was," Aipa said.

"When they did the contest for the kids on Kauai. ... Doing stuff like that and just passing it along at a very young age, I look at that and just think that's unreal."

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The Star-Advertiser's Mike Gordon contributed to this story.





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Irons remembered for inspiring young surfers




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