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All the Rage Sunny Garcia had to curb his hot temper, but not his angry surfing style, to win the world title. Now the popular champ tries to defend it

April 23, 2001
April 23, 2001

Table of Contents
April 23, 2001

Pro Football
Allen Iverson

All the Rage Sunny Garcia had to curb his hot temper, but not his angry surfing style, to win the world title. Now the popular champ tries to defend it

Twenty-four years ago on a hot day on the west side of Oahu, Sunny
Garcia found an old, red surfboard lying around the house. "Maybe
it was my sister's boyfriend's," he says. It was a monstrous,
single-finned plank that sagged down the middle, stretched eight
feet long and weighed more than 35 pounds. Sunny, then seven,
coaxed his neighbor Elgin to help him lug the board to the marbly
waters of Maili Point a few blocks away. That afternoon Sunny
surfed his first waves, a little fearfully since he had not yet
learned to swim. He says that whenever he got in over his head,
he held on to the surfboard as if his life depended on it.

This is an article from the April 23, 2001 issue

From a half mile away you can spot Sunny Garcia in the water and
know who it is. Wide-stanced and low in his crouch, Garcia's
thick body ripples at a muscular 5'10", 180 pounds. His strong,
purposeful carve is unmistakable as he glides into the barrel
of a wave, kicks out with a heavy snap and sweeps back toward
the open sea. "Some guys have power, some have beauty. Sunny has
both," says Bernie Baker, who has been a surfing judge and
photographer for more than two decades and is widely regarded as
the authority on the Hawaiian surf scene. "No one flows with the
ocean like he does. When Sunny's out there, you stop what you're
doing, camp out on the beach and watch."

Breathtaking form, though, is not enough to win the world title
of pro surfing, as Garcia did last year. Winning the title means
having the versatility to take apart two-foot waves at one event,
then whip cleanly through the tubes of raging 10-footers at the
next. A champion perseveres through a grueling nine-month
season--this year there will be eight two-week events at beaches
from Tahiti to France to South Africa--shrugging off jet lag,
weeks of lousy waves and the intestinal sickness that comes from
surfing many hours in polluted bays. The champ must be
occasionally dominant (Garcia won two events in 2000),
relentlessly consistent (he made one other final, three
semifinals and two quarterfinals) and calm under pressure.

Garcia's victory, at age 30, came deep into a colorful career in
which he had become the master of the near miss. Before 2000 he
had finished in the top 10 in each of the 10 previous seasons and
as high as third in four of those years. He nearly won the
championship in 1995 before a famous collapse in that season's
final event. Just before he advanced to the quarterfinals of the
season-opening Rip Curl Pro at Australia's Bells Beach last week,
Garcia said winning the championship was the culmination of "the
biggest fight of my life."

In his case, that's saying something.

A surfer like Garcia has never come out of Maili, a centerless
grid of dusty, dead-end streets on the side of Oahu where the
tourist bus doesn't stop. His house was typical of those around
it: a low, three-bedroom ranch wedged onto a tiny lot, and with
a hole in it: Sunny's father, Vincent Sennan Garcia II (Sunny's
the III), moved out when Sunny was six. Together with his older
sister, Kris, and his younger brother, Jason, Sunny was raised
by their mother, Irene, on the $12,000 she earned as a
housekeeper at the Hilton. Often their electricity or water
would be shut off when they couldn't pay the bills. Surfing,
though, was free, and Sunny says that it helped pass the hours
he had once spent "following my dad when he was around."

Before long, surfing occupied nearly all the hours before, after
and, finally, during school. When Sunny smelled the sewage plant
on his way to class, he knew he had an offshore wind to work
with. He would skip school and go home to fetch his board. He
discovered Makaha, an inlet seven miles farther down the bad side
of the coast, where the waves peeled clean off the reef. He would
trek there alone day after day, and the better the swell, the
rougher the waters. The fair-skinned haoles who flooded into Oahu
from the mainland never dared come to Makaha. Oahu's most
ferocious surfbreed controlled the area, and the shallows bobbed
with toughs such as Johnny Boy Gomes, who pounded both waves and
faces with legendary force. Even today waves are that shoreline's
most precious commodity, and locals guard Makaha with a fierce,
sometimes violent, territorialism. "There are three things to do
on the west side," says Jason Magallenes, a boyhood friend of
Garcia's. "Surf, get in trouble or both."

Sunny, who had been banished from Catholic school for fighting
and banned from his junior high basketball team for the same
offense, felt right at home. "He was a west-side kid all the way,
a little tiger," says Derek Ho, the only other Hawaiian to win
the pro title (in 1993) and an older-brother figure to Garcia.
"The first time I saw him he was running around with a broken
nose. He didn't stop surfing, though. He'd go through breakfast,
lunch, dinner like he never wanted to come out."

When Garcia began hitching rides to Oahu's fabled North Shore--a
moneyed stretch of shoreline where broad-lawned homes line the
coastal roads--he stood out not only for his hardscrabble roots,
but also for his intense surfing style. Nobody is better than
Garcia at getting inside a wave. He rips hard into the swell's
churning underbelly and buries his board uncommonly deep. "I want
to kill the wave," he says. "It's this big powerful thing from
the middle of the sea. And it's mine."

Garcia calls himself a "no bulls--- surfer," and he's not given
to the flashy skips and aerials favored by several of the sport's
other poster boys, like Kelly Slater and Kalani Robb. His
aesthetic appeal comes from his gorgeous fluidity and the fact
that he's as fearless looking down the barrel of a 12-foot wave
as Bugsy Malone was looking down the barrel of a .45. He's one of
the few surfers who thrives at Pipeline, Oahu's most famous surf,
when the swell is breaking to the right. Surfers call the right
break Backdoor Pipe, and most hate it because the waves crash
into water where the reef is dangerously close to the surface.
Garcia has been chunked violently into the Pipeline reef on
several occasions, but he typically comes out clean. Timing your
exit from a barrel is to play chicken with Poseidon--you want to
ride as long as you can before the wave closes around you--and
Garcia is the king of the smooth, last-second escape.

Garcia knows the nuances of surfing, and he'll tell you who does
not. That group includes surfing writers, event organizers and
especially judges, who have long been the focus of Garcia's
anger. Shortly before he dropped out of school and joined the
tour at age 16, Garcia was so incensed at the judging at a pro-am
that he smashed his runner-up trophy. As a pro he has cowed
judges with obscenities and full-arm eff-yous from the shore.
He's hurled things at the judges' tower (sand, rocks and, most
famously, a muffin he had pilfered from a spectator's blanket, an
incident caught on videotape) and punched the tower's walls.
After voting him the loser in a close heat, judges lock the tower
door. "Sunny gets as hostile as he wants to get," says Baker,
"but we understand it's just something inside him. Later, he'll
say he's sorry. There's a sweetness in there, and you know not to
take his competitive anger personally."

Garcia, who brawled with Ho at a tour event after Ho had beaten
him in a close heat, knows where his temper comes from. "It's
from having to scrap as a kid from the west side," Garcia says,
"and from my fiery blood." That blood is a mix of Hawaiian,
Puerto Rican, Chinese, Filipino and Irish ancestry, and
regardless of whether it's the source of his hotheadedness,
Garcia's volatility has defined him. In the video Sunny Dayz, a
collection of stunning surf footage accompanied by a narrative
of Garcia's rise, a 1990 quote from Billabong coach Derek Hynd
appears on the screen. It reads, "Intensely marketable but
intensely reckless, Sunny Garcia is in trouble. Without
composure, he's gone. Future world title? No chance."

Entering the 1995 tour finale at Pipeline, Garcia held a
commanding lead in the standings and appeared set to buck Hynd's
odds. He needed only to get through two heats against low-seeded
opponents to clinch the championship. Though Garcia survived the
first heat, he drew a tough opponent in the next round.
Overeager, Garcia got tossed midway through the heat. His leash
snapped, and he lost his board. "When I got it back five minutes
were left, and I needed to make two waves. There was no way,"
says Garcia who ended up in third place for the season. "That
was the beginning of the worst time."

Over the next two years Garcia and his wife, Anela--with whom he
has three children--endured a difficult divorce. He went into
despair over losing custody of his kids, and though he finished
third in 1996, he surfed erratically and slipped to seventh in
'97, sixth in '98, fourth in '99. "I wasn't comfortable on my
board during those years," he says. "But if I hadn't surfed, I
just don't know if I would have made it. When things got bad, I
would take my board and go in. I thought of the ocean as my
home."

These days he lives in a polished bungalow on 3 1/2 acres on
Hawaii's lush island of Kauai with his second wife, Raina, and a
pair of rottweilers. The yard is shaded by blossoming coconut and
African tulip trees, and on it Garcia built a motocross track
that he rides on voraciously. He and Raina have spent most of
their time here since he clinched the title at the tour's
penultimate stop, in Rio de Janeiro in October. After winning the
championship he pulled Raina to him, buried his brow in her neck,
and wept. "Sunny didn't talk a lot about the title beforehand,"
says Raina. "But it was more than something he wanted. He needed
it."

For all his tempestuousness, Garcia has a mellow, sunny side that
has lately emerged more frequently, and that was evident when he
surfed a pro-am at Pipeline in late February. After winning his
first heat with a dazzling right-to-left barrel, Garcia ambled to
the porch of a rented beach house and settled in among surfing
brahs with names like Java, Riddle and Strider. Ozzy tunes played
on a box as some of the noncompetitors passed joints. Garcia sat
serenely, leafing through a magazine, watching the competition
and chatting with whoever passed by. "He's a god here, but a
friendly god," says Bruce Irons, a pro surfer who lives near
Garcia in Kauai. "Even if he's calmer, he still surfs strong and
angry. He won't back off because he won the title. No one will be
surprised if he wins it again."

He got off to a strong start last week at Bells Beach, where he
convincingly defeated six-time tour champion and long-standing
rival Slater twice despite a torn ligament in his right knee.
Slater, a handsome, hazel-eyed Floridian, has co-opted the title
of world's most-famous surfer through his phenomenal success on
the tour, as well as his high-profile role on Baywatch and
high-profile dalliances with the show's busty vixen Pamela
Anderson. Garcia commends Slater as a marvelous surfer and as a
close friend who is the godfather of Garcia's eldest child. "I'm
not taking anything away from Kelly," says Garcia, "because he's
done a great job representing surfing. But a lot of the events
Kelly's won, they've handed it to him. He's a clean-cut,
All-American guy, and they wanted him to win. He didn't have to
fight for things."

Garcia, who earned $300,000 in endorsements last year and another
$164,000 in prize money, hasn't strayed far from the roots of his
struggles. After last month's pro-am at Pipeline--he swam in when
his board snapped in the second round--he drove the 90 minutes to
Maili to the house where he'd grown up and where his mother still
lives. Jason was recently released from jail after serving eight
months for theft. Kris collects welfare.

Sunny turns in at the old 76 gas station, then swings onto the
narrow street of his youth. A netless basketball hoop with a
plywood backboard hangs from a wooden post, and four girls play
in the road. When Garcia steps from his truck, they converge on
him. "You're Sunny Garcia," one girl says.

"Yes."

"Wow!" The girl gazes at him awkwardly, then asks, "Where were
you today?"

"Up on the North Shore surfing."

"Wow! That's far, far away from here," she says. She is about
six and, it turns out, the daughter of Elgin Reyes, who 24 years
ago helped Sunny carry that old, red surfboard to the shore.
Garcia regards the girl for a moment, shakes his head and
smiles. "No," he says, "it's not that far."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY VINCE CAVATAIO Smokin' the Pipe You can recognize Garcia (here at Pipeline this winter) from the shore by the way he attacks a wave.COLOR PHOTO: ADAM PRETTY/ALLSPORT Swell start The defending champ was a wonder Down Under last week, defeating Slater twice in the season-opening Rip Curl Pro.COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK A different high When he isn't pounding the waves, Garcia likes to catch some serious air on his backyard motocross track.COLOR PHOTO: JOLI/SURFER Shore is nice Earlier in his career Garcia often felt cheated by judges and retaliated, but Raina has helped settle him down.
Nobody is better at getting inside a wave and making it his own.
"I want to kill the wave," says Garcia.
"A lot of events Kelly's won, they've handed it him," Garcia
says of his friend Slater. "He didn't have to fight for things."
"Sunny didn't talk a lot about the title," says Raina. "But it
was more than something he wanted. He needed it."