Hero, legend and idol were just some of the words used to describe Andy Irons yesterday.
That those words came from his peers — fellow professional surfers — speaks volumes about the way Irons was viewed in the surfing community before his untimely death yesterday.
"Andy is definitely going out a legend," said Rainos Hayes, who surfed against Irons in professional contests, and also coached him on the Billabong-sponsored team. "There isn’t anybody who can question that Andy is by far the best surfer to come out of Hawaii in modern-day history. He changed competitive surfing as we know it for the next generation."
The proof is in the statistics. Irons won surfing’s world championship in 2002, 2003 and 2004. No other male surfer from Hawaii has won more than one world title. Irons won 32 professional contests in his career, including 20 on the elite Association of Surfing Professionals World Tour. Only Kelly Slater of Florida and Tom Curren of California own more pro victories.
"Andy was the one guy in the world who could challenge Slater," Hayes noted. "That meant a lot to people in Hawaii, and around the world, really. For a lot of the kids from Hawaii, from Kauai, he was definitely an idol — he inspired a whole generation with the way he surfed."
Evan Valiere grew up surfing on Kauai, just like Irons, and is now a professional surfer. He said virtually every surfer, young and old, on the Garden Island idolized Irons.
"He was definitely a hero to everybody growing up on Kauai," Valiere said. "It’s a small community on Kauai, so everybody knew him. We looked up to him as kids because we all wanted to surf like him. But I think even the kids who didn’t surf looked up to him."
Valiere said news of Irons’ death spread quickly on Kauai and through the surfing community, thanks in part to a north swell.
"The waves were supposed to be good, so everybody was down at the beach, and then I guess word got out and everybody was talking about it," he said. "Nobody could believe it. You expect somebody like that to live forever."
Irons was best known for his progressive style, and his unique ability to excel in waves both big and small. His ASP World Tour victories came in all types of conditions, ranging from knee-high waves in Europe to 20-foot bombs at Pipeline.
"The kind of surfing he did was so creative and so different from any other surfer," Valiere said. "He was real fluid, but real powerful at the same time. When he was on, I don’t think anybody could match him."
Irons, who was 32, was making a return to the ASP World Tour this year after taking a sabbatical in 2009. He won the Billabong Pro Teahupoo at Tahiti in September, and is currently the top-ranked Hawaii surfer at No. 16 in the world rankings.
"He was back," Hayes said. "The win in Tahiti told everybody that he was back. I think he had a newfound confidence, and it would have been hard for anybody to beat him this winter."
Irons was scheduled to compete in the upcoming Vans Triple Crown of Surfing on Oahu’s North Shore, and would have been listed as one of the top contenders. Irons owns four Triple Crown championships, second only to Sunny Garcia’s six.
The ASP World Tour is in Puerto Rico this week. Irons withdrew from the event due to illness and was on his way back to Kauai when he was found dead in a hotel room during an overnight layover in Dallas.
"Everything is pretty fresh right now, so I don’t know what to think," said Mililani’s Kekoa Bacalso, who has been competing with Irons on the tour. "The whole surfing community is kind of at a standstill right now."
Valiere added: "I don’t think there’s been anything this shocking to happen to surfing, ever. I don’t know who else has been lost in his prime who has been this talented and had this much impact on the sport."