Along with Princess Diana perishing in a crash, two planes flying into the World Trade Centre, and more recently Anthony Bourdain taking his own life in a Paris hotel room, I’ll always remember where I was when I learned that Andy Irons had died.
Not that they’re comparable in any way, they’re just things I do, and always will, remember. I was at the Mosman abode of a former girlfriend’s staunchly Italian parents, one of the first times that I was permitted to enter the house. The news was on in the background on a large flatscreen, as I mumbled through a procession of “yes”, “no” etc. when the report that “The Champ”—as Derek Reilly always called him—had died in a Texas hotel room came on Channel 9. It’s a surreal feeling that arises when someone you’ve admired from afar and followed for years, someone you know (or thought you knew) everything about, but have never met, dies. I’ll never forget it.
Heading to the Australian premiere of Andy Irons: Kissed By God, billed as the tell-all story of the late 3 x World Champion, last night was similarly bizarre. Especially knowing that Lyndie, Andy’s widow, was going to be there. It’s unsettling going into an event like this with a little insider knowledge. When you know that, if told honestly, the story isn’t pretty. And that if it’s not, then it’s not only a great injustice to the protagonist, but to all the fans who’ve admired Andy Irons over the year. This movie didn’t have to be made. Andy’s not on trial. Thankfully, the only thing you could accuse the film and its makers of being is painfully honest.
The biggest revelation from this movie was that Andy Irons was in the Special Ed class in school. Doesn’t sound like a big deal: a kid who’s good at “sports” not excelling in the classroom is a familiar tale. But hearing from Andy’s mum just how much not being able to learn affected him at an early age, somehow makes the preceding tale of his unbelievable drive, crushing lows, and rampant addiction make a little more sense. It’s also the first time that it’s been publically knowledged that AI was diagnosed with bipolar early in his career, and that after a short trial on meds, he chose to manage it himself. Outside the cinema afterwards as the crowd trickled out, a friend mentioned to me that he wasn’t completely convinced about the bipolar diagnosis, as who can really put a label on the effect that rampant drug and alcohol abuse from an unbelievably young age (at the end of the film a report from Andy’s time at rehab revealed that he’d been using drugs and drinking excessively even before hitting his teens) has on different people. Whatever the case, after hearing how much being labelled “Special Ed” troubled Andy Irons, it seemed like being labelled “bipolar” may have been more helpful for explaining his behaviour to those around him, than it was at explaining the voices inside his head to him.
Like 200,000 other American since ’99, it was opioids that killed Andy Irons. Might be time for us to revisit the phrase, “trust me I’m a doctor.” Loose lips end contracts in the surf industry, for athletes and media alike, and that’s why it’s taken until now, eight years after his death, for the whole story to come out. That and the incredible bravery of the Irons family, his brother Bruce, and most of all Lyndie Irons. You really can’t say enough about this incredible woman and what’s she’s done with this film to open the lid on men, mental health and addiction. Nearly all of my male friends have tangled with mental health, drugs and alcohol to varying degrees at some stage, and despite what my stepfather thinks, it’s not because my mates are anymore unhinged than anyone else’s. More open, if anything. Glancing ’round any high powered office in the world, especially in the ads/media/money worlds, you won’t have to look too hard to find someone, usually male, with an undiagnosed mental health disorder that’s being masked by drugs and alcohol and facilitated by peers. It’s all part of a bigger question of success, what the word really means, and how much emphasis we put on it.
Ultimately, Andy Irons: Kissed By God gives an honest account of a man that suffered with demons unimaginable to most, and achieved greatness along the way. Dying alone in a hotel room with a pregnant wife expecting a baby isn’t glamorous, and the film doesn’t make it out to be. But struggles on land don’t take away from what you do in the water, or the moments of joy that you brought to people’s lives. Whether they knew you personally or not. Same with painting, music, whatever it is. Art endures. It’s just that sometimes it comes at a hefty cost.