Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Crashing Down - Andy Irons | by Brad Melekian
words by Brad Melekian
I’M SITTING AT one end of a 15-foot-long conference table inside Billabong’s U.S. headquarters—a glass-and-steel building in a nondescript office park in Irvine, California, off Interstate 5. It’s late June, and I’ve been summoned here by the surf manufacturer’s CEO, Paul Naude, and his VP of marketing, Graham Stapelberg, both of them South Africans. They have brought highlighted printouts of a story I wrote for Outside’s January issue, “Last Drop,” about the death of Andy Irons, a three-time world surfing champion and Billabong’s top sponsored athlete. It’s clear they mean for me to speak first, to explain myself.
Things are a little tense because, in late November, only weeks after his November 2 death in a Dallas airport hotel room, I wrote about Irons’s history of drug and alcohol abuse, which nearly killed him on at least one occasion. At the time, the family was standing by its initial press release that Irons had “reportedly been battling” the tropical disease dengue fever when he died, and neither they nor Billabong were talking—though one Billabong rep sent an e-mail saying he couldn’t comment but that we could “count on” Irons having died of dengue.
For writing that story, and especially for recounting that 1999 near-death binge-drinking episode in Indonesia, I was threatened by numerous people within the surf industry and accused of spitting on Irons’s grave. Then on June 10, a week prior to my sit-down at Billabong, after multiple legal challenges from Irons’s family, a Texas medical examiner had finally released a toxicology report detailing what killed Irons.
The report should have cleared up any lingering mystery, but that’s not what happened. Tarrant County medical examiner Nizam Peerwani wrote that he’d found evidence of cocaine, methamphetamine, methadone, a generic form of the anti-anxiety drug Xanax, and marijuana in Irons’s system, and the original police report noted that a bottle of sleeping pills was on a table in the hotel room. But he also concluded that Irons had a severely clogged artery and ruled that “the primary and the underlying cause of death is ischemic heart disease.”
What about all those pharmaceuticals? “Drugs,” the report continued, “particularly methadone and cocaine, are other significant factors contributing to death.”
It was the kind of wording you could interpret to suit your biases or needs, which some have done. Members of Irons’s family, surf journalists, and the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP)—who presumably didn’t want the public to believe that Irons died of a drug overdose—viewed the report as vindication. A statement released by the Irons family in June read, “Traveling while sick and suffering from an undiagnosed heart condition was more than even Andy could overcome.” Bruce Irons, Andy’s brother and also a pro surfer, recently told ESPN, “When we got the results that it was the artery I went and did a test, and my arteries are fine. Now I know and understand deep down inside that it was brother’s time to go.” Editors at the website Surfline tweeted, “Andy Irons died of sudden cardiac arrest due to a blocked artery. His heart was full of passion for life & surfing.” After the results came out, ASP officials agreed to an interview but later backed out, and PR director Dave Prodan sent me this e-mail: “The ASP has no further comment at this time, aside from: The loss of Andy Irons from the sporting world has been devastating, but we feel fortunate enough to have witnessed his incredible accomplishments and unbridled passion for the sport of surfing.”
NAUDE AND STAPELBERG have put a lot of money and clout into maintaining Irons’s legacy—for example, by renaming the prestigious Pipeline Masters Hawaiian surf contest the Billabong Pipe Masters In Memory of Andy Irons and establishing a line of products called AI Forever. But they’ve been silent when it comes to discussing his drug problems. Immediately after the toxicology report came out, both Naude and one of Irons’s uncles told me that the results represented an “inconvenient truth” for journalists like me, the implication being that I was rooting for a clear finding of death by overdose.
I wasn’t: all along I was trying to explain what happened to Irons despite a massive stonewalling effort orchestrated by members of the surf media, the ASP, his sponsors and managers at Wasserman Media Group, and his family. Then, in June, Stapelberg said they would speak to me, to “set the record straight,” but only if I met with them face-to-face.
Now, with my tape recorder off, their list of grievances turns out to be fairly short. When I cold-called Naude during my initial round of reporting back in November, he says, I told him I was writing a celebration of Irons’s life, though it turned into more of an exposé. (Fair enough; I’d been assigned a short obituary.) And they’re angry that I attributed the November 2 dengue press release posted on Billabong’s website to the company rather than to the Irons family. But that’s about it.
When I finally turn on my recorder, I start the interview with a few softballs before asking, “When did it become apparent that Irons’s recreational drug use was problematic?”
To their credit, Naude and Stapelberg don’t blink. It’s clear that they’re aware that Irons’s death has made many people in surfing reconsider the code of silence that has prevailed when it comes to drug abuse in the sport’s professional ranks. Nobody questions that Irons was a good person, a tremendous athlete, and an icon around the world. But if his death is going to mean anything other than rah-rah about what a great guy he was, the time to start discussing it honestly is now.
“It was the end of December 2006,” Stapelberg begins. “Andy started to have some major mood swings and just wanted to be on his own a lot. It was June 2007 when he went into rehab.”
ONE THING THAT is clearer now—thanks to Naude, Stapelberg, and several other people who previously refused to be interviewed—is the chain of events leading up to Irons’s death in Dallas.
His final days began routinely enough. He landed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on the evening of October 27, 2010, in advance of the Rip Curl Search surf contest. Irons did an autograph-signing session for Billabong in San Juan, then was taken by Billabong team manager Blake Pettit, one of his handlers, to his hotel room at the Villa Tropical Oceanfront Apartments in Isabela, on the island’s west coast.
By this point in his life, Irons’s drug problem had alternately gotten better, worse, and much worse, but it’s not fair to assume that he arrived in Puerto Rico strung out. Most people close to him, including his uncle Mark Taché, who lives in Aspen, Colorado, say he was sick with flu-like symptoms before he got to Puerto Rico. Few people saw him between October 28 and 30. Taché says he was bedridden.
When I asked Stapelberg and Naude whether Irons had actually been on a drug binge, as several people have suggested to me, Stapelberg told me, “I don’t know. I have no proof either way.”
Irons missed his first-round heat on Saturday, October 30, with no explanation; then, on October 31, he called Renato Hickel, the ASP’s World Tour manager, to say he was “too sick” to compete. Hickel sent doctors to Irons’s room. Back in California, Stapelberg—who was briefed by Pettit and Hickel—says they recommended that Irons go to the hospital, but he refused. Instead, the doctors administered an IV in his room. “He instantly started to feel better,” says Stapelberg. When they told Irons they needed to do a blood test to diagnose him, Irons freaked out. “He said, ‘I’m over it,’ ” says Stapelberg. “‘I’m fucking over doctors. I’m over this event. Get me out of here.’ ”
Did Irons think the ASP doctors were going to drug-test him? “Who knows?” says Stapelberg. “You can only make those assumptions. Yeah, maybe that was a reason.”
Irons signed a release acknowledging that he was declining treatment, called his wife, Lyndie—who was at their home in Kauai and eight months pregnant with the couple’s first child—and booked the next flight back to the island. It included an overnight layover in Miami and a stop in Dallas. Billabong team rider Alejandro Moreda drove him to the airport.
IF IRONS FEARED a drug test, he probably needn’t have. In the wake of his death, the ASP has issued boilerplate language and dodged questions about its testing policies, at some points contradicting itself about whether such a policy even exists. According to its own handbook, the ASP doesn’t conduct drug testing but does allow host nations to test athletes for banned substances—including recreational drugs. That’s how Brazilian surfer Neco Padaratz tested positive for steroids at a French contest in 2004. (French authorities were cracking down on all sports after the numerous scandals in pro cycling.)
In response to specific questions about Irons’s drug use, the ASP’s international media director, Dave Prodan, sent me the following statement: “By working closely with WADA”—the World Anti-Doping Agency—“the ASP Anti-Doping Policy is always developing to ensure that the sport of professional surfing maintains the clean image it enjoys today.” Prodan also said that the ASP had “no verifiable knowledge” of Irons’s drug use. This despite the fact that Stapelberg, who sits on the organization’s six-member board, acknowledges driving Irons to rehab in 2007.
Former ASP employees are more forthcoming. “There was zero drug testing, period, done by the ASP,” says Melissa Buckley, the organization’s media director from 2005 to 2009. “There were just too many guys that wouldn’t pass.”
It’s not that the presence of recreational drugs in a counterculture sport like surfing should surprise anybody. The problem is that, these days, pro surfing wants to be seen as a legitimate competitive event that has the same marketing potential as, say, professional golf. This year the organization will hold high-profile competitions at breaks near Rio De Janeiro, New York City, and San Francisco as part of its newly rebranded Dream Tour. The New York event will be held on Long Island, will be sponsored by Quiksilver, and will involve surfing’s first million-dollar purse.
If drug use is as widespread in the lineup as Buckley and other surfing insiders say it is, mainstream acceptance might be a lot to expect. If the ASP’s officials want a general audience, they’ll have to come to terms with the increased scrutiny that accompanies that growth. “We always said, What if something like this happens,” Buckley recalls. “What if somebody dies?”
IRONS ARRIVED IN MIAMI late on Halloween night. Carlos “Bam Bam” Del Olmo, a 45-year-old pro surfer and sometime actor who’d known Irons since he was 13, got a call at 11:58. Irons was at Mango’s, a nightclub on Ocean Drive, and he wanted to have some fun. “When I got there, he was typical Andy,” says Del Olmo. “Happy. He gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek, super stoked.’”
Irons didn’t appear sick, and his flight to Dallas didn’t leave until 6:30 a.m. “He just wanted to have a good time,” says Del Olmo. “He asked me if we could get some coke. I was like, Dude, you’re in fucking Miami.” Irons then asked whether Del Olmo knew how to get another more serious drug, though Del Olmo wouldn’t say what it was. “I was not prepared to hear what came out of Andy’s mouth,” he says. “I shut him down immediately.”
The two went to a party at the Setai, a hotel on Collins Avenue. Irons was worried about being seen. One of Del Olmo’s friends was dressed as a cameraman for Halloween, and when Irons saw him he bolted. “I had to chase him from the Setai to the W Hotel, like a block and a half,” Del Olmo says. “He said, ‘The fucking guy was trying to film me, bro. Nobody can know I’m here.’ ”
Irons calmed down and returned to the Setai, where he had some drinks and snorted a small amount of cocaine. Del Olmo says it was no big deal. “If somebody can die from doing a gram of coke with eight guys in a bathroom stall... That just doesn’t happen,” he says. “That was the extent of the drug use that night in Miami.”
According to Del Olmo, Irons was generally upbeat that night. “All he was talking about was going home and watching his baby be born.”
Nonetheless, when Irons’s cab arrived at 4:30 a.m., Del Olmo was worried enough that he tried to protect Irons from himself. “I gave the Jamaican cab driver $80,” Del Olmo says. “The cab ride was $30. I gave him a $50 tip and I said to him, ‘Yo, brother, that’s Andy Irons, three-time world champion from Hawaii, in the back seat of your car. I don’t give a fuck if he wants to stop at 7-Eleven for water, you don’t stop. When you get to the airport, you walk him in to the American Airlines desk, and you make sure he gets on that plane. You got that?”
IRONS’S NIGHT IN Miami didn’t strike his friends as out of the ordinary, and neither did the way Del Olmo attempted to look after him: it was seen as a private matter. As Stapelberg said, it was in 2007 that Irons first checked into rehab. He’d won his ASP world championships three years in a row, from 2002 to 2004, but placed second to eventual ten-time champ Kelly Slater in 2005 and 2006.
“He found it a little harder to win,” says Kamalei Alexander, a Kauai local and one of Irons’s closest friends. “Maybe those losses he was taking harder, and maybe he was compensating with drugs.”
According to the family, there was another factor: Irons had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 18. As his family maintained in the first statement it issued after the release of the toxicology report, “Andy was in some denial about the severity of his chemical imbalance and tended to blame his mood swings on himself and his own weaknesses, choosing to self-medicate with recreational drugs.”
Taché, Irons’s uncle, told me, “He thought he could hold his own and will it away.”
In June 2007, Billabong representatives got word that Irons had been on what Stapelberg calls “a bender” while at the ASP event Irons won in Arica, Chile. Stapelberg picked up Irons at the airport in Los Angeles and drove him directly to Promises, the prominent celebrity rehab facility in Malibu.
“I was asked personally by his dad,” says Stapelberg, “because they couldn’t deal with it from Hawaii.” Billabong advanced Irons $75,000 for the program, and Irons later paid the money back.
Irons didn’t stay in rehab long. He left after about ten days to surf in a contest at Jeffreys Bay, South Africa. Billabong agreed to let him go as long as he was accompanied by a sober companion—a professional minder—to make sure he didn’t stray, but the companion “wore thin” on Irons within a week, according to Stapelberg. When the contest ended, Irons refused to return to rehab. “He said, ‘Look, I’ve got this one,’ ” recalls Naude.
But in November of that year, after Irons married Lyndie, he relapsed. “It was evident ... that things weren’t good again,” says Stapelberg. Billabong sent Irons back to Promises and again advanced the $75,000.
What, specifically, were his addictions? “His biggest vice at the time was prescription painkillers, it was OxyContin,” says a mentor Irons met at Promises, who contacted me and agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. According to the mentor, Irons was reluctant at first, but by the end of rehab he was engaging with the therapy. “You got the sense that he was absorbing it,” the mentor says.
While in Malibu, Irons was allowed to train and was attempting to combine the 12-step spiritual principles of Alcoholics Anonymous with his love for surfing.
This time, Irons completed the program and, afterward, wanted to publicly address his addiction. “He felt that he owed it to his fans and the surf community,” says Stapelberg.
But he never talked, and five different writers and editors at three different surf publications say that’s because they were worried that Billabong would pull their advertisements. I was a senior editor at Surfer at the time, and we received word that Irons was going to do a tell-all, then, mysteriously, that he wasn’t.
Naude and Stapelberg vigorously deny using their leverage to silence the surf press, and Naude calls the insinuation “typical speculation.”
Irons made the decision on his own, Naude contends. “We said to him, ‘It’s a private matter at this stage.... If you choose to keep it private, that’s your decision. If you choose to go public because you think it’ll make you feel better, then go public.’ ”
BY SEPTEMBER 2008, Irons was off the ASP World Tour again, having withdrawn from a contest in France. He applied for and was granted a sabbatical for the entire 2009 season. Billabong set him and Lyndie up in a house in Angourie, Australia, where they could maintain a low profile away from the temptations—“rich people and druggies,” according to close friend Alexander—that he’d be confronted with in Kauai.
One reason Billabong might have been willing to go to such lengths was that Irons had become the face of their global brand. Far from its niche beginnings in the 1970s as a boardshorts company, Billabong is now a publicly traded $1.5 billion conglomerate and owns a dozen other action-sports brands, including Element, Von Zipper, Nixon, DaKine, and RVCA, as well as a slew of retail outlets.
Billabong’s not alone atop the industry, of course. Quiksilver, also publicly traded, is worth more than $850 million, while Volcom—“Youth Against Establishment” is their motto—was sold in May for $607.5 million to French holding company PPR.
Billabong made $155 million in profit last year. Irons, who is pictured surfing a tropical blue wave on the cover of the company’s 2009–2010 annual report, was an uncomfortable pitchman. In rehab, he grappled with “how he has to be a spokesperson and an image and a brand,” says the mentor who knew him there.
“He hated being interviewed, hated having to give a speech,” says Naude, who recognized that, by then, Irons’s value to Billabong didn’t depend on him winning or even competing at ASP events. Contrary to reports that Irons only returned to competition in 2010 because Billabong forced him to, Naude says he “made it abundantly clear” to Irons that he had a contract whether or not he competed.
Irons surfed as a wild-card entry at the ASP World Tour event in Tahiti in May 2009 and made trouble for himself; several of Irons’s housemates approached Stapelberg at the event, telling him that Irons “partied last night” and was “being a disruption.”
“That was the only time I ever lost it with Andy,” says Stapelberg. “I said, ‘Hey, Andy, it’s not about me and you anymore; it’s about your own personal life.’ We almost came to blows.”
Irons’s 2010 comeback started poorly the following February in Australia, where he lost early. He surfed well in Brazil and at an event in Southern California in April. “He looked like the Andy of old,” says Stapelberg. But in June, as I reported in “Last Drop,” he had a drug-related flare-up at the surf-resort island of Tavarua, in Fiji. In that incident, he tried to start a fistfight with another surfer during the trip and ultimately had to be restrained and sedated.
Stapelberg says Billabong fined Irons after that incident but declined to disclose how much, other than to say, “He didn’t enjoy the fine.”
Billabong thought about cutting Irons. “Did it cross my mind? Absolutely,” says Stapelberg. “But did we ever say, ‘If this happens one more time, you’re done’? No.”
Irons’s triumph came in September 2010, when he won the ASP World Tour event at Teahupoo, Tahiti, his first since that 2007 win in Chile. Despite having such a tumultuous year, he was still the seventh-ranked surfer in the world. He was eliminated early at the next event, held at Trestles, south of Los Angeles, then went to Europe, where he didn’t make it past the second round at two events.
The momentum from Teahupoo was gone by the time Irons arrived in Puerto Rico. Slater was set to win his tenth world title, and the event would be a coronation.
IRONS MADE THE 6:30 A.M. FLIGHT to Dallas–Fort Worth. He landed at 8:35 a.m., but instead of going on to his connecting flight he checked into the airport’s Grand Hyatt Hotel at 8:47. It wasn’t until the next morning, November 2, that hotel employees discovered him dead. Peerwani, the medical examiner, performed the autopsy the following day.
Ordinarily, a Texas medical examiner’s report is released to the public in 60 to 90 days. But the Irons family—accustomed to dealing privately with Andy’s substance-abuse issues—wasn’t prepared to cope with what might be in the report. Billabong, the ASP, and the surf media followed the Ironses’ lead. Meanwhile, the rest of the world wanted to know how he died. Irons may have toiled in a niche sport, but he was widely famous: his name was the most searched term on Google both after his death and after the report was finally released.
The family hired a lawyer and filed for an injunction, which was granted on December 21, two weeks after Lyndie gave birth to a boy, Andrew Axel Irons.
“It was too much of a risk for the final stages of Lyndie’s pregnancy,” says Taché, referring to the potential shock and scrutiny that might have resulted from the examiner’s report. The injunction was intended to tamp down public interest, but it had the opposite effect. Still, says Taché, “Our primary decision was to protect Lyndie.”
After the Ironses’ lawyers filed a second injunction on May 19, the report was released directly to the family on May 20—a move that several legal experts I spoke with say is highly unusual on the part of the court. What happened next is in large part what led to the confusion and differing interpretations of the autopsy.
Rather than release the report—it was going to become public eventually—the family hired its own pathologist, Vincent Di Maio, M.D., of San Antonio, Texas, to review it. The family then issued a press release containing Di Maio’s opinion and sent the toxicology report to The New York Times.
The Times’s headline read “Surfer Died of Heart Attack and Drugs,” but other news outlets, including the Los Angeles Times took the family’s press release at face value.
“Mr. Irons died of a heart attack due to ... hardening of the arteries,” Di Maio wrote for the family, adding that “there were no other contributing factors to his death.” When contacted by my editor at Outside, Di Maio doubled down, going so far as to dispute that cocaine was found in Irons’s system, though it’s clearly marked on the medical examiner’s report.
Di Maio has previously given contrarian opinions in high-profile cases. In his testimony at the 2008 murder trial of record producer Phil Spector, who was ultimately convicted, Di Maio argued that Lana Clarkson, an actress whom Spector had met in a bar the night she was killed, had in fact shot herself in the face. Di Maio, who was hired by Spector, says he’s paid between $200 and $400 per hour for his services but that his fees don’t affect his judgment. The prosecutor in that case, deputy district attorney Alan Jackson, disagreed and repeatedly attacked Di Maio as a shill, asking him: “Are you not shading your testimony to benefit one side?”
Still, without exception, the news stories that followed the release of the report lacked the analysis of an independent expert. That’s helpful to have, because understanding a medical examiner’s report often requires reading between the lines. When Elvis Presley died of an overdose in 1977, the coroner listed cardiac arrhythmia as the cause of death, which means only that he had an irregular heartbeat. According to Bruce Goldberger, director of toxicology at the University of Florida College of Medicine, “You always like to give the benefit of the doubt to the decedent.”
Goldberger reviewed a copy of Peerwani’s report and noted that the high levels of Xanax and Methadone alone could have been lethal. Although Goldberger says it’s possible for a young, otherwise healthy male with a clogged artery to die suddenly, he says that even without a heart condition, Irons had lethal levels of drugs in his system. “There’s no way that you can remove this acute-mixed-drug-ingestion finding from the cause of death,” he said. “If you removed the natural-disease findings from Mr. Irons, you would be left with sufficient toxicology to cause [his] death.”
BRUCE IRONS WAS sound asleep at home in Kauai the morning of November 2 when he heard Lyndie screaming at the door.
“I came out of a dead sleep and ... I instantly knew it,” he recently told the Australian surf magazine Stab. “Right away I had the feeling I knew how he died.” Bruce went on to recount the 1999 incident in Indonesia that I first reported in “Last Drop,” in which a combination of binge drinking and sleep apnea had stopped Andy’s heart for several minutes. “He’d snore so hard ... he’d stop breathing,” Bruce recalled. “If there’s no one there to kick you...”
Whether it was a cocktail of drugs, alcohol, and sleep apnea that stopped his breathing and then his heart, or whether hardening of the arteries—which is hereditary but can be accelerated by prolonged cocaine use—caught up with him, one thing is clear: Irons’s hard-charging lifestyle put him at risk.
Most surf writers have closed ranks and argued that how Irons died is irrelevant; we should be focusing on how he lived. But that’s not exactly true. Trivializing his problems, as Surfing contributing writer Chas Smith did when he wrote in an online essay that people who want to know the truth “can continue to go to hell,” is an attempt both to fabricate his legacy and to absolve the people around him of any responsibility.
“The sport itself has to have drug testing in it,” says Australia’s two-time world champion Tom Carroll, who’s also a recovering addict. “We have to put in place measures that help people who are in trouble.”
Smith, in his essay, also made what is perhaps the most telling point about the saga, writing himself into the Irons clan as he went: “The family kept, and keeps, his failures behind a closed door precisely because we are a family.”
No doubt, Irons was ultimately responsible for his own actions, but it was behind the industry’s closed doors that he was unable to escape addiction—where friends and acquaintances who supplied him with drugs followed him across six continents, where even his home island of Kauai wasn’t safe for him, where his sponsors and his sport’s governing body were willing to handle his problems as a “private matter.”
If Irons’s family—his actual family—wants to believe that he died of a heart attack, that’s understandable. If his enablers and handlers want to advance that point of view, it strikes me as self-serving.
Once the surf world comes to grips with what actually happened, maybe then Irons’s legacy can begin to take the shape he’d hoped it would: “More than anything,” he told Surfing in 2005, “I just want to be remembered as someone who passionately loved surfing.”
Brad Melekian is a former editor at Surfer magazine. He’s currently working on a book about Andy Irons and surf culture.