The surf sphere has seen two world-shattering events in the past week.
On Nov. 2, Andy Irons, a surfer of stunning talent and experience, died of the dengue fever alone in a Dallas hotel room. In striking, overwhelming contrast to the news of Irons’ tragic death, Kelly Slater won his 10th WCT title this week, cementing himself in history as an unmatchable entity more akin to a surf deity.
A three-time world champion, Irons was ranked 17th on the World Championship Tour (out of the top 44 competition surfers in the world) at the time, but pulled out of the first round of the Rip Curl Pro in Puerto Rico due to illness and died in Dallas on a layover while en route home to Hawaii to see his doctor.
Like millions of others, I was weaned on surf vids and Surfline and grew up recognizing A.I. as one of the greats — one of the most talented athletes of our generation. The hyped-up rivalry between him and Kelly Slater was always a point to follow in the news. One couldn’t help but be captivated by his takedown of Slater in 2003, then his dethroning by Slater in 2005. I saw Andy Irons as a legend — a strong-willed, powerful surfer of epic skill, with an enviable smile, ambition and passion.
At one time or another, we’ve all wished that we could live the life of a professional surfer, to be in Andy’s or Kelly’s or Stephanie Gilmore’s or Laird Hamilton’s booties. Their lives are shining examples of how great life can be.
That Andy could die in his prime from a rare virus in a lonely hotel hundreds of miles away from the beach was a horrible reminder of the power of death and how ineffective all his money, fame and skill were in preventing it. Because I am a surfer, and perhaps because the memory of local surfer Lucas Ransom’s tragic death to a shark attack is still fresh in my sphere, the death of Andy Irons is close to home and so unnervingly poignant.
You see, Slater has pretty much proven to the world that he embodies perfectly executed movement. I’m convinced the man is superhuman. It’s heartening and, at the same time, maddeningly insane. Slater is nearing 40 years old but he keeps getting better. His surfing no longer employs the dynamic of a man on top of a board — it has morphed into something beyond. He surfs with his board, his body and the wave as one interconnected medium working in collaboration. He is in a class of his own among mortals. One wonders if Slater could trace his lineage back to Poseidon?
But no matter the impression that Slater’s completely expected yet impossible achievement has made on the world, this feeling was subdued and altered by the tidal wave of Irons’ passing.
It’s easy, sometimes, to just surf without a thought. This week, however, did not offer that reprieve. As we grieve for Andy and rejoice for Kelly, the surf world forges a memory of this week as a focal point in surf history. I’m not sure where we go from here, but I don’t expect things to be the same.
Daily Nexus surf columnist Elliott Rosenfeld is still working on that first WCT title. It’s always the hardest.