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.