Demystifying the Death of Andy Irons

In life, Irons' rock star combination of savant surfing and personal brashness polarized the surfing community like few other public figures, so it is grimly fitting that his death should do the same.
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On Friday, June 10 the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's office released the toxicology report for Philip Andrew "Andy" Irons. It states that his primary cause of death was a sudden cardiac arrest associated with coronary artery disease with a 70-80 percent stenosis (abnormal narrowing) of one of his arteries. It further states that his secondary cause of death was "acute mixed drug ingestion."

According to the report, the following drugs were found either on his person or in his system: Alprazolam, (Xanax) Zolpidem, (Ambien), cannabinoids (marijuana) naproxen (anti-inflammatory), cocaethylene (a chemical produced in the body when cocaine and alcohol are mixed that's linked to causing heart attacks in people under 40), methamphetamine, methadone, and cocaine. The report includes a lengthy "comments" section explaining how cocaine and methadone can impede the work of the heart -- thereby making their presence in Irons' body "significant." It concludes with the following: "the primary and underlying cause of death is ischemic heart disease due to coronary artery pathology (heart disease). Drugs however, particularly, methadone and cocaine, are other significant conditions contributing to death but not resulting in the underlying cause."

Some, like Dr. Vincent Di Maio, an award-winning forensic expert and media stalwart hired by the Irons family, believe that drugs did not contribute to Irons' death. Others, like the numerous doctors anecdotally consulted for this piece, side with the Medical examiners in Tarrant County citing the myriad and well-documented ways that prolonged drug use can debilitate the heart.

In life, Irons' rock star combination of savant surfing and personal brashness polarized the surfing community like few other public figures, so it is grimly fitting that his death should do the same.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of the way Irons' death has been officially handled is the pregnant silence and, in some cases, apparent misdirection that has come from those in a position to clarify incongruous facts and events surrounding his death. A Billabong Executive declined to comment on the record for this story, and the day Irons was discovered dead in a Texas hotel room, Billabong's Director of Media distributed the following press release, titled "3-Time World Champ Andy Irons Dead From Deng (sic) Fever" to journalists involved in the surf world:

"The key point to get across about Andy is that he knew, and his family knew, and his sponsor Billabong knew he had a problem," says ex-pro surfer, Peter King, an outspoken critic of using the image of drugs to brand surfing companies. "He was getting away from it and getting better. Much better. No one was ever trying to cover up what Andy was going through... his performances suffered, he had to take a break from competing, and he worked to get past his addiction. No secret there."

"We aren't a tabloid culture in surf trying to destroy each other on top of bad things that are happening," King offers unprompted. "I do not know exactly why Andy died other than there was no one with him on that flight home...but no one was ever trying to market or capitalize on his problems."

The sense of camaraderie King alludes to has long characterized the way surfers conduct business. Irons' problems with substance abuse were never directly addressed in print, both for business considerations, and because surfing magazine editors appeared (and appear) to have a genuine concern for his public image. He was described as a "partier" and his break from the ASP World Tour was framed by media outlets as a loss of the will to compete, as seen in two separate interviews on Surfline in 2008 and 2009. At one point in the interviews, Irons himself denies the "partying," saying: "Nope. It's easy to place the blame on drinking and partying, but honestly, 12 years (on tour) is the reason why, and that is it. Go ahead and replace the word 'partying' in Transworld's quote with 'repetition,' and you got yourself a quote we can work with."

According to photographer and friend of Irons, Art Brewer, the surf industry is unique not because of the presence of drugs, but because it is in the precarious process of distancing itself from a stereotypical drugged-out image. "None of us are saints, but no one wants to talk about it," he says. "It would be a black eye to the industry. Being a pro surfer now is like being a rock musician back in the day. Drugs are so accessible when you are in that scene. But I wouldn't say it's the company guys who are giving drugs to their riders. They know it's happening, but they're not acknowledging it, or maybe they don't know how to handle it."

The facilitators, according to Brewer, are the mid-range players, the people who "aren't the stars, but want to be cool and look good in those people's eyes."

According to Brewer, the media's sidestepping around Irons' addiction problems was a result of the advertising dollars that come from the large surfing companies keeping those magazines alive. "The only reason I talk about it is because I think it's a joke how the industry is run -- it's a whole little clique, like a mafia, and it's becoming cheaper and cheaper," he says.

"Andy was too important to the industry," says Brewer. "He was a hero, and that's how they wanted him to go out. Dengue fever? Yea, right. One in a fucking million die of Dengue."
I asked him if official revelations of drug use will diminish his legacy. "No, not at all. He's like Jimi Hendrix. He was already great, and now that he's gone it just carries on that mystique. It's almost like a marketing tool."

Read the full version of this article at the Inertia

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