He will remain the only surfer to have driven Kelly Slater to tears — such was the white-hot competitive drive of late Hawaiian surfing great Andy Irons.
Unknown to many though were the demons that weighed heavy on Iron’s shoulders — namely his struggle with mental health and dependence on prescription pills.
Those two battles frame a documentary which its makers say aims to both raise awareness and destigmatise mental health while quashing many of the rumours which have dogged Irons since his passing.
Irons was found dead, alone in a Dallas hotel room in November, 2010 aged just 32. An autopsy report later concluded he’d succumbed to a combination of a heart attack and illicit drugs, which were found in his system.
The documentary, Andy Irons: Kissed by God, provides an unflinching look at the depths of despair Irons, and more so wife Lyndie, would be driven to as they attempted to “keep quiet” about the mental health issues Irons was faced with.
Though diagnosed with dipolar disorder in his mid teens, Irons masked many of the symptoms with alcohol and illicit drugs, before falling deeper into dependence on prescription opiate-based pills.
“We were so ashamed, and I spent a lot of time trying to cover for Andy,” Lyndie told the ABC of her late husband’s at times erratic behaviour.
“Almost every second of every day I was trying to pick up the pieces and cover up what was really going on and it’s not healthy to live that way. It wasn’t healthy for me, it certainly wasn’t healthy for Andy or anyone else around him.”
Lyndie said she was “mostly” driven to participate in the documentary to help the Irons’ seven-year-old son Axel “understand who his daddy was” and prepare him for questions that may arise one day.
“I just thought I needed to do a documentary about Andy before the kids start to tease or talk inappropriately about Andy.
“I just wanted to speak Andy’s truth and I didn’t want anyone else to do it. Andy was honest to a fault and I knew he would have wanted me to tell it, if not for anything else than for our son’s sake.”
Surfing greats describe the ‘two side’ to Irons
Like many high-profile athletes, Irons was able to shrug off his dual personalities as a side effect of his intense competitive drive, a drive that would garner him three world titles and force Kelly Slater to re-evaluate his own career when confronted with the then unstoppable force of Irons in prime form.
The pair waged many battles out among the waves, with Irons famously driving Slater to tears after snatching a world title at the Pipeline Masters in 2003.
“There were times were I hated him so much, but getting through that and realising that he’d given me such a gift, he’d accessed something no one could access in me,” Slater says in the documentary.
“He drew that desire to be great again, and win again.
“I was content with the world titles I had but Andy revived some sort of demon inside of me that needed to figure itself out.”
Kelly Slater (left) with Andy Irons. The pair would push each other to new competitive heights (Source: Steve Sherman)
Similarly, Australian surfing great Mick Fanning found himself initially struggling with the competitor who would ultimately become a close friend.
“There were two sides to Andy,” Fanning recalls.
“On the beach you were friends, but then as soon as the hooter went or you were paddling out for a heat, it would just switch and he looked like he wanted to kill you.”
Lyndie says it was her hope that the documentary would make it easier for young athletes to be open about the issues they may be facing, particularly when it came to mental health.
“It saddens me to think schizophrenia is one of the world’s oldest known diseases, if not the oldest, yet it’s still not ok to talk about mental illness?” she said.
“Hopefully in 20 years from now it will be. Hopefully.”
Andy Irons: Kissed by God is touring Australia.