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The tragic death of a superstar athlete reveals a sport in the midst of world-class growing pains
In November 2010, Andy Irons died mysteriously in a Dallas hotel room four days before his lifelong rival Kelly Slater won his unprecedented tenth world surfing title. Slater wore a white wet suit and served as role model for a generation of surfers. Irons was brash and cocky, wore black, and was the hard-charging, hard-partying rock star who called himself "the people's champ."
These two represented the modern face of surfing. Slater's efforts to legitimize surfing as a sport with mainstream appeal were culminated when he won his tenth world title, a feat that put him in the pantheon of sporting greats alongside Michael Jordan and Lance Armstrong. Still, a pall was cast over the entire affair: the "story" was Irons's death, not Slater's win. And the controversies surrounding Irons's death continue both in and out of the news.
Breaking reveals to us what surfing was, is, and wants to become. How did an oddball, esoteric pursuit pioneered by a cluster of outcasts become a fully formed sport, replete with a million-dollar contest circuit? Why has it gained a religious following of people who find it to be a salve for all of life's problems? What is the science of risk behavior? How did Slater and Irons, both millionaires from working-class backgrounds, represent the apotheosis of surf culture? And how do their stories affect ordinary surfers who ride waves in small beach towns and travel to far-off oceans in search of answers that are never quite there?
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Brad Melekian is a correspondent for Outside magazine, and his work appears inThe New York Times, McSweeney's, Men's Journal, Surfer's Journal, and other publications. Previously, he served on staff for eight years atSurfer magazine, most recently as a senior writer. In addition, he teaches writing at the University of San Diego.
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