EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an excerpt from Surfer magazine Vol.39 #10. To read this interview in its entirety go to your favorite surf shop and pick it up (on sale August 8, 2002). Or subscribe now .

In 1998, during his rookie year on the World Championship Tour, Andy Irons, the surf media’s highly touted, “Next Slater” candidate, fell drastically short of expectations by failing to re-qualify. In addition, there were darker rumors, cautionary tales of self-destructive behavior and substance abuse. With his fledgling career already in jeopardy, it seemed, critics were all too ready to paint him as the latest victim of party life on tour, and a prime example of “too much too soon.” But on the brink of throwing it all away, Andy decided instead to suck it all up and re-focus his efforts. Over the past two years, his return to the WCT and steady climb since has been one of professional surfing’s most inspirational “comeback” stories.

This season, the Andy Irons’ turn around tale was completed when he took over the top spot on the current ASP rankings. After nabbing an early lead in Australia, taking out the Rip Curl Pro at Bells, he followed up with a win at the Billabong Pro at Teahupoo. There, in the closing seconds of the finals showdown with tour heavyweight Luke Egan, Irons stole another victory with a heroic last ride. The back-to-back WCT wins extended his ratings lead to over 1,000 points, thrusting him into pole position in this year’s highly anticipated race for the world title.

While Irons is undoubtedly riding high, the same expectations that nearly killed his career as a rookie are piling up on him again. Naturally, he remains cautiously optimistic about his title prospects, especially after getting injured in Fiji during a warm-up session for the Quiksilver Pro. We caught up with Andy to find out how he found his way back to the top, and how he intends to stay there. –Chris Mauro

SURFER Magazine: First off, tell us how you got injured in Fiji.

ANDY IRONS: They were supposed to have my heat at Cloudbreak this one evening so I went out there all ready to surf and they ended up calling it off. I stayed out because I wanted to try a new board and it was still going nuts. Anyway, I took off on a wide one, pulled into the barrel and couldn’t come out, and the thing smashed me into the bottom. The cut on my right arm was pretty bad but the bruise was worse, it swelled up like a grapefruit overnight, just in time for my heat. Shit, it’s still swollen.

Did you still surf in your heat?

ANDY IRONS:I almost didn’t. But the doctor set me up, he used one of those cooly beer holder things as extra padding to tape me up. I looked like Allen Iverson with one arm all wrapped. Everyone was calling me “A.I.” It was sweet. But I still couldn’t grab a rail or anything.

You must have been pissed, considering the circumstances.

ANDY IRONS:I was. It was horrible. The night before? And of course the swelling was as bad as it could get during my heat. I was so bummed out, and really pissed at myself. It was the first time I’d been really pissed off in a long time.

But even though Cory and Shea Lopez made up some ground on you in the ratings, you’ve got to be pretty happy about where you’re sitting today.

ANDY IRONS:Oh yeah, I’m super stoked. I never really thought I’d be in the lead, let alone have 1,000 points on the guys behind me. But then to go and get 17th, and lose to a wildcard, that’s pretty tough to handle, especially when the waves were going off.

How different than just a few years ago, when it was obvious that you were going through a pretty rough periodsurfing solid, but lagging on the WCT, and getting pretty distracted with the sideshows that always accompany life on the tour.

ANDY IRONS:That’s totally true. I think a lot of it is just being at that age, between 17 and 22. That’s college age. Those are the experimental years of your life when you find out how things work. For me, getting to leave Kauai to surf the tour right out of high school, that was like living out my rock n’ roll fantasy. It hit me pretty hard.

The pitfalls of fame?

ANDY IRONS:Yeah, you’re 18 and everywhere you go there are people ready to take you out and go nuts. So you do. And after a while you don’t really care if you embarrass yourself because you’re always leaving in a couple of days anyway. So it’s like, let’s just go to the next country and start all over again. It’s wild. You go out to a bunch of killer clubs, you can legally drink and you’re doing things you’ve never done before. I did some pretty stupid things. But you kind of have to go through that period because if you don’t you’ll be wondering what it’s all about.

Some people get stuck in that period longer than others. Some don’t come out at all.

ANDY IRONS:Yup. I was around it enough to realize that too. It’s fun for a little while, but pretty soon you’re just over itand you know it’s time to move on.Time to get back to work and figure out what you’re doing with your life.

But were you having fun?

ANDY IRONS:Raging, yeah, surfing, no. A few years ago, a big reason why I wasn’t having fun was all the pressure to do well. It’s heavy to be making all this money right out of high school and have all these expectations piled up on you. It trips you out. From the time I was 18 to about 21, it was really hard to even enjoy my surfing. It was a total job and I really didn’t like it at all. I’d totally forgotten how to have fun with it, so it sort of made sense that I cut loose.

And then in the middle of all this, you fail to re-qualify for the WCT. Did doubt start to creep on at that point?

ANDY IRONS:Oh yeah, so many times. I remember being in Japan thinking, “I’m over this. This sucks.” I was seriously going to go home and live in Hawaii and shoot some photos and hang out with my boys. My friends there live pretty good lives, doing the Sumatra thing in the summer. To me, that and shooting photos looked way better. I was losing money everywhere I went bombing out first and second round.

What helped you stick it out?

ANDY IRONS:Just talking to the right people. I remember guys telling me, “Look, your time is now. If you don’t stick with it you won’t come back later.” They’d point to a ton of guys trying to come back after going off and doing the photo thing and it never works. Those guys get played out pretty easily.

How much did sibling competitiveness affect your decision to straighten up and get back on tour?

ANDY IRONS:Just having Bruce there in the water with me the whole time growing up, we were always looking over our shoulders, always trying to outdo each other. We’d push each other into every situation: bigger waves, deeper in the pit, everything. And I’ve always played sports. I get amped. I don’t like to lose, ever.