Sunny Garcia and I hadn’t talked for something like 20 years. In the late ’80s we’d been friendly. Worked on a SURFER profile together when he was a skinny 17-year-old; I caddied for him in a contest or two at Sunset; we’d have dinner when he was in town for the Op Pro. Then I did one of those pre-Power Ranking articles in SURFER, breaking down the Top 44, and said Sunny wasn’t much looking like a contender; he went on record saying he wanted to “bitch-slap” me—and of course went on to win a title. (Gracious fellow that I am, I sought no credit for inspiring him to greater efforts.)
Earlier this year, out of the blue, Sunny Facebook friended me, and soon after we talked on the phone. Bizarre, in some ways, how much he’d changed. One marriage, some kids, divorce, a second marriage, jail time, another marriage, two grandchildren.
Even more bizarre, though, was how much Sunny hadn’t changed. He’s still a power-surfing Triple Crown threat, of course. But I’m thinking more of Sunny as a person. If you’re in his good graces, as I had been long ago (and apparently was again), he’s warm, open, sincere, easy to connect with in conversation. Has an empathy that never comes through in interviews or profiles. Loves talking about family. We weren’t three minutes into our conversation, though, before he was a casually telling me about how he’d stood down a half-dozen surfers not too long ago after what sounded like a petty drop-in incident at Trestles. That part of Sunny is unchanged too. Easily frustrated. Quick to anger. And once angry, its a very short step to violence, or at least the threat of violence. Anyone who watched Boarding House: North Shore a few years back knows what I’m talking about. He goes from sweet to scary in the blink of an eye.
Sunny turned 44 this year. Guess I’d hoped to find that he’d mellowed some. Or mellowed a lot. Then I went back and read the profile I did on him 1988, and remembered that he’d been born and raised in a place where violence was an immediate option for almost any problem, big or small: a drop-in, an insult, a rumor.
The Westside was hard. It made Sunny hard. His parents split up with he was five. He got kicked out of school for the first time at age six. In 9th grade, a huge older kid walked into Sunny’s photography class and, while the teacher stood by too scared to do a thing, pushed Sunny up against a corner and beat the crap out him for some bullshit reason. Broken nose, two black eyes. Sunny, 15, walked out of the class and never went back to school. Surfing, he told me, was the only thing that kept him from jail.
So do I wish that Sunny, today, at 44, had gotten past all that anger? I do, sure. Do I have any real understanding of what it would actually make that happen? No. Not even close. Childhood didn’t break Sunny, but it bent him, and I can’t even imagine how to unbend that shit, or if it’s even possible. Even with a world title and a big close knit family to your advantage. My guess is that just keeping himself in check to the degree Sunny does takes some work.
Sunny also told me (and said the same thing during our first interview, when he was 17), that his achievements in surfing were fueled by anger. That he didn’t surf well when he was happy. That he wouldn’t change a thing. Which, it seems like, is another way of saying that even if Sunny could let go of the anger, by doing so he’d probably lose a huge part of himself.
Pretty complicated. As things often are in middle age.
The clip I made for this post goes back to a time when it wasn’t complicated. Kid was a fighter, pure and simple. Anger was his ally. Anger took him all the way to the top.
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We met almost 30 years ago! You were 15 or 16. What do you remember about being that young?
Surfing-wise, one of things I remember best was winning everything I could possibly win, and still feeling like I was getting the short end of the stick as far as sponsors and things like that. Guys like Jeff Booth and Doug Silva, anybody from Orange County . . . if you lived there, surfed Salt Creek, knew the guys in the industry, you were taken care of, even if you were just . . . you know. Where if you were from Hawaii, you were just going to get the short end, almost every time. I had a huge chip on my shoulder because of that.
What I remember best about you at that time was the footage from Surf Into Summer, when you’re riding that longer board and doing those big turns in kind of so-so head-high waves at Makaha. How big was that board?
That was a 7′0″ Town and Country. Can’t remember who shaped it.
Why such a long board?
I used to always borrow Brian Keaulana’s boards; he had all these cool longer boards. As a little kid, I’d ride whatever I could borrow, you know? Mostly I liked longer boards because I could catch more waves. But I also ended up learning how to turn maybe a little different than other kids. At that time, like around 1985, I think I actually surfed better on a 7’0” than a 5’10” or whatever I was riding most of the time. Also, Curren used to do that a lot too, ride longer boards, a 6’6” or a 6’9”, and I loved how he looked on those boards. You learn how to hold an edge, how to keep the board on edge. Curren did that so good. I wanted to do it, too.
My other strong memory from around then, or a little later, was the 1987 Op Pro final, which you lost to Barton Lynch. You were up on the podium afterward looking so pissed off.
That was just . . . I thought I won. It was a best-of-three final. The second heat I won. The third heat I kind of just fell apart. The first heat, I really thought I had it, but they gave to Barton.
Any other 17-year-old rookie would have been so stoked to get second.
To me, there was never any point of being on the World Tour except to win a world title. Second place wasn’t going to do it. So I was unhappy unless I won.
I loved it when Derek Hynd called you “a modern day Cassius Clay, come to whup some ass.” That seemed appropriate.
That was a huge compliment.
You know who Sonny Liston is? You had a bit of that going on too.
Liston was a bad dude, yeah.
Was Derek Hynd coaching you then? As part of the Billabong team?
He was, and I hated it. He was a dick. Not just to me, to everybody. But looking back, you know, I pretty much got all my best results when I was pissed off. And Derek always gave me a reason to be pissed.
Like I couldn’t sleep before events, so I’d go out to clubs and listen to music. Not drinking, not partying, just trying to get my mind off the contest. And I’d come back to the hotel where all us Billabong guys were staying, and Derek has locked me out if the room, so I’d have to sleep in the hallway. All kinds of stuff like that. Mind games. But it worked. It was maybe a weird way to do it, but it worked. It was good for me. Even after Derek, I always found a way to take bad feelings and turn them into something that worked for me. When I was happy, I never got good results.
Does it bother you now, or seem kind of messed up, that you had to be angry to win?
No. Not at all. It was fine, it was how I needed to be.