Andy Irons dies en route to Hawaii

Andy Irons at the Bells Beach news conference in March. Kirston Scholz/Getty Images

Three-time world surfing champion Andy Irons died Tuesday. He was 32.

Irons contracted an illness in Portugal in October and missed his Round 1 and 2 heats at the Rip Curl Search Puerto Rico stop on the ASP Men's World Tour on Saturday. He was traveling back home to Hawaii when, on an overnight layover in Dallas, was found by staff at the Grand Hyatt Hotel at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport after he failed to respond to a wakeup call.

A police report released Wednesday said the prescription drugs Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication, and the sleeping aid Ambien were found in Irons' hotel room. There were no signs of trauma and foul play.

An official statement by Billabong, one of Irons' sponsors, said he was suffering from Dengue Fever. "He fell ill in Puerto Rico and went to see the contest doctor," said Stephane Tenailleau, European spokesman for Billabong. "The doctor told him to withdraw from the contest and go back home to fix the disease."

Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani said a ruling on the cause of death could take several weeks, pending the completion of lab tests.

A report in the Honolulu Star Advertiser, citing the same medical examiner, said that Irons' death is being investigated as a possible methadone overdose and reported the drug was found along with other prescription drugs at the scene.

Irons was arguably the most dominant surfer of the early to mid 2000s. In addition to his three consecutive world titles from 2002 to 2004, Irons had 20 World Tour victories and four Triple Crown Of Surfing titles. But more significant than the statistics was his reputation as perhaps the only true rival nine-time World Champion Kelly Slater has ever known, and the two engaged in some of the most memorable title races in history.

Irons returned to the World Tour this year after a one-year hiatus. While his results had been inconsistent, a win at the Billabong Pro Tahiti in August signified a return to form in the kind of powerful, barreling surf in which he made his reputation.

Fellow surfer Reef McIntosh, who grew up with Irons on Kauai, said Wednesday from Hawaii: "I talked to Phil [Irons], I talked to Bruce [Irons] -- everyone's just crying. I was surfing Mavericks with Shane [Dorian] and everyone else and saw all these missed calls. My girlfriend called and said Andy had died. I didn't return these calls because I didn't want to drive and cry at the same time. Everyone on Kauai is crying right now."

Professionally, Irons was a fierce competitor and known for his rivalry with nine-time world champion Kelly Slater. Out of the water, Irons was remembered as a humble person who loved Hawaii. He also was intensely devoted to his family, friends and fans.

"Andy was incredible. I think he was a person that always wore his heart on his sleeve. He didn't try to impress anyone. He was just all about what he wanted to do. He was an amazing competitor," Australian surfer Mick Fanning said.

Irons was revered on Kauai, along with his younger brother, Bruce, also a pro surfer. Irons' father taught him to surf on the North Shore, where he was married three years ago.

In a 2002 interview with The Associated Press, the day he won his first title, Irons said being a champion wouldn't change him as a person. And friends say that was true.

"I'm totally the same person. I'm just a Kauai boy with a title now," Irons said.

In Puerto Rico, more than 130 surfers along the island's north coast paddled out Wednesday to clasp hands and form a circle as tradition dictates to honor a surfer who dies.

Fanning threw flowers into the middle as others cheered and splashed before they broke off one by one to catch a wave in honor of Irons.

"We're a surfing family," Fanning said in a statement. "We're all hurting right now."

The Association of Surfing Professionals said it would suspend competition again Thursday out of respect for Irons and expected the 2010 Rip Curl Pro Search to resume Friday.

Slater was among those who paddled out. The surfers grabbed their boards with one hand and clutched bright yellow flowers with their other as they shuffled quietly through the sand and entered the water.

"Although he and I butted heads a lot a few years ago, I have so many good memories of Andy and we have become pretty good friends since," Slater said in a statement. "We're just baffled that he's gone."

In Hawaii, a surf tournament was held on Sunset Beach with 20- to 30-foot waves pounding the North Shore. The mood was somber with some grief-stricken surfers pulling out of the event.

"I paddled out this morning with a lei to put in the water and it hit home again. It makes you want to do it for him and be the animal that he was in the water, but at the same time you know that there's a piece of surfing that's not replaceable," friend Rainos Hayes said. "There's only one Andy Irons, and he was it."

Meanwhile, a flood of messages were posted online.

"RIP buddy you will always be in our hearts," tweeted Sunny Garcia, a former world champion from Hawaii.

Irons' family released a statement thanking the surfer's friends and fans and requesting privacy "so their focus can remain on one another during this time of profound loss."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.