When three-time ASP world surfing champion Andy Irons died on Nov. 2, 2010, at the age of 32, the surf community lost one of its most dynamic competitors. But big-wave heavy Bruce Irons lost something more: his big brother. He calls the two years that followed the darkest, most challenging of his life.
His brother's cause of death continues to provoke debate within the surf community. The coroner's report said the primary cause was a heart attack due to coronary artery disease, but it also listed five drugs, including a by-product of cocaine and methadone, as significant factors. In the ensuing years, Bruce separated from his wife, removed himself from his friends and rarely surfed. Then, last November, he shocked the surf industry when he split with longtime sponsor Volcom and signed with Fox Head, a company known for its motocross chops and, like the 33-year-old, looking for a fresh start in surfing. These days, Irons speaks openly, smiles more and surfs for himself. But most importantly, for the first time in a long while, Bruce Irons is happy.
We sat down with Irons in Venice, Calif., in late February after he and girlfriend Hailee returned from a weeklong snowboard trip to Jackson Hole, Wyo. "It's not all about surfing for me anymore," Irons said that day. "It's about finding balance in life." In May, the couple traveled to Spain to attend the Barcelona X Games, visit Fox's new headquarters and make a quick vacation stop in Venice, Italy. Then Irons returned to California to visit his kids before flying home to Hawaii for a few days. Irons was still at home last Tuesday morning when Oakley announced he had officially accepted a wild-card entry into the Oakley Pro in Karamas, Bali, on June 18. "I haven't surfed an event like this in a long time," Irons said in a follow-up phone interview last week during a layover in L.A. "Pipe Masters is a WCT event, but it's not this type of surfing. It will be exciting to surf this wave. It's high performance and has everything, from getting barreled to doing big airs and fast speed turns. It's an action-packed wave. It's perfect."
The last time the World Tour passed through Bali -- the 2008 Rip Curl Pro Search Uluwatu -- Bruce won the event. It was his first and only World Tour win. This contest is the first WCT event Irons will surf in Fox gear, and he says he very much wants to make his new sponsor proud. "It's been incredible at Fox," he said. "The people there make me feel very good and important and warm. I want to go to Bali and do really good, so I've been doing some training and am taking it really seriously. The only pressure on me is pressure I'm putting on myself. I'm on my way down to Mexico because there's a big swell and I'm going to surf a lot before I leave for Bali on Monday. Then in a couple weeks, we'll do this interview again. And we'll be talking about my victory."
Bruce Irons, as told to Alyssa Roenigk
My whole life, I've had tunnel vision and my brother was at the bull's-eye. Everything I did was to one-up him, to impress him, to get his approval. I didn't see anything else. I know that now that he's gone. But it was my brother's time to go. I'm comfortable saying that.
It took a lot to get Andy's approval. Our feelings were radical and intense. It was love, but we had a strange way of showing it. Where we grew up in Hawaii, you're taught that showing your feelings is a sign of weakness. So you bite your lip, smile and act like nothing hurts. I went through gnarly depressions my whole life because of seeds that were planted. It was rough growing up -- my parents divorced when I was 5, and their relationship was all over the place. The beach saved my brother and me. That was where I expressed myself. I couldn't express my feelings, so when they finally would hit, it would send me into a depression. I didn't want to leave the house, didn't want to do anything. I express myself now. I use positive language. I say, "I love you," to my family and friends.
I don't use that word a lot: friends. Friends are hard to come by these days. My meaning of friendship has changed. I spent a lot of time in my house, in my head, and I thought about every person in my life and the word friendship. Who is my friend? Who is the friend with their hand out? Who's the friend who wants to party? I really started questioning a lot of the people I'd surrounded myself with in the past and I realized it wasn't how I wanted to live. It's not healthy. I want to surround myself with positive people.
I'm living on Oahu, at Eddie Rothman's house. I surf and go back to the house. I'm not in the scene. That also bugs people. Why isn't he in the scene? Where is he? People assume the worst and hope for the best, or maybe they assume the worst and hope for the worst.
When I'm walking out to surf Pipeline -- that moment is one of my biggest insecurities. Not feeling up to par. The mind is a tricky, trippy thing. It gets me in trouble when it starts racing too fast. If I wait around too long, one little thought will come into my mind and take me into a spin.
Now I know who I am. I'm proud of my accomplishments in surfing, but I have so much more to accomplish. Now I'm surfing for myself. And I'm happy. Do you hear that? Bruce Irons is happy.
I have friends who are no longer here and I can't say how it is where they're at. I have friends who are behind bars who don't have their freedom. I have my freedom. I get to make choices. It's a 24/7 workout to stay positive, but if it were easy, it wouldn't be worth it. Happiness is a choice, not a reaction. That's one of the affirmations I say every morning.
A year and a half ago, my friend Todd, he had this board hanging on his wall with all these sayings and I started reading it. He said, "No. Say it out loud. Reading it is one thing, but saying it creates a vibration that sends out a wave." By the end, I felt really pumped up and stared saying those things every day. I tell everyone, "Watch what you say or what you want because the universe is listening." If you put out negative thoughts, it will come back to you tenfold. That's why I speak positively.
I did a lot of thinking after my brother passed away and realized there are no answers. But I met this guy Kent through Taylor Knox and my manager, Blair. He works with energy moving. I'd met him in 2002 and didn't see him again until eight months after my brother passed away. My stomach was up here and I couldn't breathe and I was in a bad, bad depression. There were a couple routes I could take, and neither was good. I knew it was time to go see him. He surfs and is one of those people I feel like I've known for many lifetimes. He saved my life. At a time when I was very depressed, he helped me to better myself.
Everything is put here [he places his fist over his midsection], all the emotion, all the things you're not expressing your whole life. When you bite your teeth and act like nothing is fazing you. He has a gift to where he can find pockets of emotions or old energy and get a hold of it and channel it. It feels like a gnarly rock lifting and when that thing releases, it goes through him and you get a blast of fresh air, like he's putting light into my heart. He's a facilitator of the light. But he doesn't like to be called a healer or a guru. We're all equal.
Yes, people react when they haven't seen me in a while and hear me talking like this. But that's how I know who my real friends are.
I feel grateful and fortunate that I get paid to surf. But I still feel like a dork. I don't understand why people want my autograph. When someone tells me I'm the reason they started surfing, I trip out. It makes me blush.
Volcom was a very big part of my life for 19 years, but we outgrew each other. It wasn't healthy and it was time for a change. It was time for me, for my best interests, to look for a new start. Fox has been in surfing for nine years, but I want to help them take it to the next level. I'm not that creative, but I tell them how I feel, what looks good, what works, what doesn't. I'm honest with them. My honesty has worked for me this long, so I'm sticking to it.
I've always been a fan of motocross and a fan of Fox. As a kid, I wanted to ride dirtbikes, but we never had enough money. I rode when I was older, though. When Fox first started in surfing, Kalani Robb rode for them and he gave me his hand-me-downs. I could wear them on Kauai because there are no photographers on Kauai. I was always a fan.
I've been separated from my ex-wife and living apart from my kids for almost a year and a half. They've been in San Diego for the last eight months, so I'm back and forth a lot from Hawaii. I try not to be away from them for more than three weeks.
I'll do a few other contests this year -- Pipeline, Jaws, the Eddie -- but competition was never my drive. Surfing is my expression, a way to vent, it's my church out in the water.
Surfing on the tour felt wrong for me. I didn't like the way I was surfing. I didn't like to surf a certain way to please judges. It's the opposite of why I surf. The tour is grueling and boring. But I hand it to Parko and Kelly. Those guys are amazing to do what they do, and under all that pressure. I like competing, but I couldn't handle that tour.
When the surf is bigger and out of control, that's when I feel more relaxed. There aren't a lot of people out surfing, but those who are out are the real watermen, the people I respect. They're calm and cool, not cocky, and enjoying the energy. That's the adrenaline I love, on Kauai surfing big waves with no cameras around. I've surfed some of the best waves of my life with just one friend, no one else around. It's pure. It's about self-gratification.
When I surf by myself, I talk to my brother. I send out love, even to the people who give me the most challenging feelings. It feels better than to hold on to negative emotions. I did that for way too long.
My kids made me understand unconditional love. I never understood that idea, but it's a beautiful thing. Becoming a parent made me have compassion for my parents. They did the best they could based on what they were taught. That's what I'm trying to do. Be the best parent I can, teach them the things I wasn't taught. I let my daughter express her feelings. She teaches me, too. Get it out, scream and move on. Then leave it in the past.
A friend told me that kids choose their parents. They're brought into this world to teach us something we need to be taught. I believe that.
The next generation of surfers? I surfed to get away from my crazy home life. Now they've got parents at the beach, coaches, trainers, nutritionists. Herbie Fletcher said our generation is the last of the wave warriors. He's right.
Death is inevitable. I'm not afraid to die. But I also love living. I want to be happy and be around people who make me happy. That's what life is about.
When my kids were born, I would hold them and put my nose right to theirs and look straight in their eyes. When I do that with [my nephew] Axel, he has exactly my brother's eyes. I started meditating and when I do, I can gaze and see my brother's eyes. They're exactly like Axel's, the bone line, sunken-in eyes. I love that kid very much. Thank God that we have him in this world.
Bruce Irons is not going anywhere. There are big things coming for the future. I'm just waiting for Mother Nature to produce the right type of setting. Not the perfect wave, but I want to do big things in certain waves with the new boards that other people aren't doing. Big things. Big things. And Fox is right there with me.