"Secretly I've really wanted this award for five years now," Kelly Slater said in 2016 after winning the Andy Irons Most Committed Performance Award at the Billabong Pro Tahiti. Kelly had just won the whole event, scoring a perfect heat on the way to his first win in three years, yet it was the AI Award, as it's known, that provided the real emotional kick.
"I was channeling Andy this week," he said. "I was thinking about him a lot. He was a monster out here, he would just man-handle barrels. The last heat I had with him out here was that last year he won. I felt like I was part of that in some way. That award is going to be front and center in my home. There is a lot of emotions right now."
That's probably the key to this award; the emotion that comes with the rising sun-patterned trophy. Irons was synonymous with the wave at Teahupo'o and to this day it was the way he approached the wave that all surfers would love to emulate. To earn this trophy you have to have put it all on the line, every time, just as Andy did.
The AI Award was first awarded in 2011, the year after the death of the 3x World Champion. That year, as 10-foot swells drained down one of surfing's heaviest sinkholes, it was impossible not to contemplate what Andy Irons would have been doing out there. It was Jeremy Flores, however, who came closest to filling the huge void that the Hawaiian had left behind.
"Andy was a hero, an idol and on top of that, just a really good friend," the Frenchman said, after Bruce Irons gave him the inaugural trophy. Flores would go on to win the Billabong Pro Tahiti in 2015, cementing his reputation as one of the best ever at Teahupo'o.
In 2012, Ricardo dos Santos took the trophy home to Brazil. The goofyfooter was a wildcard into the main event and defeated Jordy Smith, Taj Burrow and Kelly Slater in a performance of nerveless bravado. "Andy was a hero of mine and I was thinking of him a lot," he said. "Maybe he sent me that wave I needed against Kelly." Tragically, Dos Santos was fatally shot near his home in 2015. That his name is engraved on the AI Award only adds more gravitas to the trophy.
The remaining winner's list of John Florence, Owen Wright and CJ Hobgood reads like a who's-who of big-wave chargers. In 2013 John John, who grew up under the mentorship of Irons surfing Pipeline, secured his award in not huge, but flawless Chopes. Wright won his Award in 2014 for a series of monumental beatings and tubes throughout a number of heats that featured borderline unpaddleable 10-12 foot sets. It was the type of adrenaline-fueled, raw courage that Irons showed at the break.
In what is a pattern, CJ Hobgood's win in 2015 had added resonance. This was CJ's last ever Billabong Pro Tahiti before he retired and he'd had so many epic battles with Andy over the years. "The last time I made the Final out here was with Andy in 2010 when he won and he was really emotional," CJ said upon receiving the award. "That moment I shared with him will be with me for the rest of my life."
It seems that every surfer who has won the award has shared a special moment or been heavily influenced by the surfing and personality of Andy. His impact, at Teahupo'o more than any other place, is still being felt and his absence still being missed. To win the Andy Irons Most Committed Performance Award you have to charge like Andy. No wonder it is so bloody hard to win.