Irons' surf resume is solid
By Dayton Morinaga
Advertiser Staff Writer
If surfing is Hawai'i's gift to the sports world, then Andy Irons is like an Apple iPhone or Nintendo Wii.
He is the latest, greatest, and most advanced gift of a surfer that Hawai'i has ever produced.
"To have a Hawaiian world champion for the sport of surfing means so much to so many people here," said Keoni Watson, a sales representative for Billabong and renowned big-wave surfer. "He has taken surfing to a whole new level here. He's a legend."
Irons, by the way, is only 31.
That he can already be considered a legend in a sport filled with them is a testament to his prodigious talent.
Think of all the great surfers Hawai'i has produced over the years. Not one of them can match Irons' professional resume.
Most notable, Irons won three consecutive Association of Surfing Professionals world championships in 2002, '03 and '04.
No other male surfer from Hawai'i has won more than one world title.
"I never even thought I could win one, let alone three," Irons said. "I was thinking I'd go on tour, win a contest here and there — whenever the waves were good. It's so hard to sustain that level for a whole year. It's still surprising to me that I pulled it off."
It's not so surprising to those who know Irons — or those who have seen him surf.
David Riddle has served as Irons' coach and mentor for more than 20 years. He said the championship talent was evident even in the pre-teen Irons.
"You could see he was something special," Riddle said. "When he was on a wave, whether it was free surfing or in a contest, you could not take your eyes off him. You didn't want to miss what he was going to do next."
Irons was born and raised in Hanalei, Kaua'i.
It is where he learned to surf — first in the uncrowded waves of "Pine Trees," then to the larger waves on Kaua'i's outer reefs.
"I am definitely, 100 percent, a product of my environment," Irons said. "Hanalei has every kind of wave. I surfed fun beach breaks when I was a kid. Then when I got older, I ventured out to the reefs. I molded my style off the waves of Kaua'i."
His style proved to be almost unbeatable in the amateur ranks, where he won state and national championships annually.
"He had all this talent, but he also loved to surf," Riddle said. "He was out there every day, no matter what the conditions were. He was totally immersed in surfing."
It led to lucrative professional contracts and world tour success.
Now — still at the height of his popularity — Irons still calls Hanalei home. He and his wife, Lindy, own their own home there.
"O'ahu is nice, the North Shore," Irons said. "But I have friends I can always stay with when I go there. Kaua'i is my home, always will be."
Without Bruce Irons, the surfing world might never have discovered Andy Irons.
Bruce is Andy's younger brother by 16 months.
"We were so close in age, we did everything together," Andy said.
That included dominating the local surf scene as youth competitors.
"It was like a constant one-upping each other thing," Andy said. "We would watch each other surf and always try to do better than each other."
The sibling rivalry became sibling success.
Andy is considered the most successful world tour surfer Hawai'i has ever produced. Bruce is considered one of the most creative free surfers in the world.
"They were really the only two guys who could push each other when they were younger," Riddle said. "So to see what they've done with it is the greatest feeling.
"Andy took his skills and turned it into competitive genius. Bruce took his skills and went huge in free surfing. It's like it turned into this perfect mesh."
As Andy put it: "You can't talk about one of us without talking about the other. We wouldn't be nearly as good at surfing as we are without each other."
THE TURNING POINT
On the way to graduating from Kapa'a High in 1996, Irons went through "a life-changing moment."
It had nothing to do with the senior prom.
On February 27, 1996, Irons won the HIC Pipeline Pro. He was 17.
Most of the other surfers in the contest were established professionals, including former world champion Derek Ho. What's more, the final day of the contest was run in wave-face heights that reached 25 feet at the Banzai Pipeline.
"It was the stuff I had only seen in videos up until that point," Irons said. "I don't know how I did it. I would be scared today to take off on some of those waves."
The final day of the contest ran on a Tuesday, so Irons had to skip school. He returned to classes the next day.
"My friends were like 'Wow, we saw you on the news. You really are a pro surfer, huh?' " Irons recalled. "To this day, I hold that contest as the turning point. It made me realize that I could be a pro surfer and my dreams could come true."
DIFFICULT PRO START
Irons graduated from high school in May 1996. By November 1997, he qualified for the elite ASP World Tour.
Before he was even 21, Irons said he was in "like a rock-n-roll lifestyle."
"I was a kid still, and there were all these parties that the sponsored paid for everything," he said. "I wanted to take advantage of it. I don't think I missed a party those first couple years."
As a result, Irons dropped off the world tour in 2000 due to subpar results in 1999.
"It's so hard when you're from Hawai'i, especially at that age," Irons said. "Everything is so far away. Sometimes you have to go through four or five airports just to get to a place, then you drive five hours to get to the beach.
"I just had to grow up a lot faster than most people that age."
In 2001, Irons was back in form. He finished that year ranked No. 10 in the world, setting the stage for his three-year title run.
THE TITLE YEARS
The years 2002-04 are now known as the Irons age of surfing.
He out-surfed everybody on the tour for three years, even topping the surfing god known as Kelly Slater in both 2003 and '04 (Slater was on a break from the tour in 2002).
"Kelly was one of my idols, one of my biggest heroes," Irons said. "Whenever I looked at the ratings, I looked for his name to see where he was. For me to finish ahead of him twice ... it still freaks me out."
When Irons won a contest in Fiji in May of 2003, he moved ahead of Slater in the ratings.
"When they posted the ratings, I remember taking a picture of it because I figured it might be the only time I would be No. 1 ahead of Kelly," Irons said.
Slater would finish 2003 ranked No. 2, and 2004 ranked No. 3.
The 2003 clash between Irons and Slater was epic. It came down to the final heat of the final contest — the Pipeline Masters.
"At that particular juncture, they were unquestionably the two best surfers on the tour," said Randy Rarick, executive director of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing. "The surf became secondary. It was about the battle. Everybody came out to watch Kelly and Andy and see who was going to be the world champ."
Irons wound up winning the Pipeline Masters.
"That was the ultimate dream," he said. "Beating the best surfer ever."
In the surf world, Billabong is considered an industry giant. The international company focuses on surf apparel, but also has divisions for skateboarding and snowboarding.
Irons is Billabong's most marketable athlete. A giant player for the industry giant.
"He's an icon, not just in Hawai'i, but all over the world," said Watson, who represents Billabong stores in Hawai'i, Guam and Saipan.
During Irons' championship run, his life-size posters adorned window displays at Billabong stores in Paris, London, Tokyo and New York.
The "Rising Sun" boardshorts worn by Irons was picked as "Boardshort of the Year" in 2007 by the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association.
"We call it the A.I. signature style," Watson said. "If it's got Andy's name on it, people want it."
In 2002, Billabong created a basketball jersey with Irons' name on the back, above the number 1. When he won his second title, the number changed to 2, then 3 the next year.
"That launched a basketball jersey craze in the surf industry," Watson said. "What he's done as a surfer, his success, is incredible. But what he's done within the industry has been undeniable, too."
RETURN TO 2010 TOUR
Irons admits that "burn out" led him to take a sabbatical from the World Tour this year.
In 2008, he finished the tour ranked No. 14 — his worst showing since 1999.
"He got thrust into the spotlight so soon and so big, it's not surprising that it caught up to him," Rarick said. "The good thing is, he's young enough where he can come back."
And he will.
Irons said he is already anxious to return to the 2010 world tour. The 2009 Triple Crown of Surfing in November and December will serve as his "warmup."
"I can't wait," Irons said. "One year is a long time to take off of work. Longer than I thought. But it's been perfect for me. I feel refreshed, recharged."
Regardless of how he does in 2010, Irons' legacy is firm.
"I think more than anything else, he's an inspiration to a lot of kids here," Rarick said. "He showed that you can come from humble, outer island roots and make it to the top."