The (Lost) Stab Interview With Sunny Garcia
A candid conversation with the World Champ circa 2017.
Ed note: In anticipation of the start of the Triple Crown (2017) in Hawaii, Sam McIntosh rang up Sunny Garcia to talk about his history with the storied three-jeweled crown, to hear him out on the current state of surfing, his feelings looking back on his career in Hawaii and elsewhere, etc.
Anyone who has ever been tasked with a Sunny interview will attest, you never know what you're going to get squaring up with the opinionated, brick house Hawaiian, but on this occasion, Sunny was candid, frank, thoughtful, and more than generous with his time. While the interview was mined for quotes for our Triple Crown series with Vans, The Pick-Up, most of Sunny and Sam’s conversation landed on the cutting room floor.
While the aftermath of his attempted suicide has sparked conversations on the subject of mental health and depression, internationally, the family has raised $120,000 of the $150,000 needed for his medical bills (donate here).
This is the lost Stab Interview with Sunny Garcia, though we certainly hope it isn’t the last.
Thank you to Adur and Tala Letamendia for their archival images of their longtime and dear friend.
Stab: Hey Sunny, going good? Are you in Hawaii?
Sunny: Good, yeah, good. No, I'm in California.
When are you headed over?
Probably not for another two weeks.
Did you get any waves this recent run of swell?
I was in Fiji for two weeks, but I think I only got like three or four days worth of waves.
I call it Crowdbreak. I try and stay away from there. I stayed in Namotu Lefts. I just surf in Namotu Lefts and Wilkes.
Wilkes is a tricky wave. It's tricky to surf, runs away from you a little bit...
So, your Hawaiian stay, are you going to do the Triple Crown again?
I’ve been injured for the last year and a half. That fucking car injury fucked me up for a while. Didn't get any points the year before last, which made it virtually impossible to surf any events last year. No points, can't get in the Triple Crown, which is pretty sad.
"Throughout my career I've never been one to shy away from telling the association what I feel is the right thing for them to do, or keep them in line. I couldn't give a fuck about getting fined. The money for me was never the reason why I surfed."
They can't make an exception or a wildcard or anything like that?
They've been trying to get rid of me for a long time. They're not going to make any exceptions.
[Laughs] Why do you think that is?
I haven't been the easiest person for them to get along with. Somebody's got to keep them in line, and throughout my career, I've never been one to shy away from telling the association what I feel is the right thing for them to do, or keep them in line. I couldn't give a fuck about getting fined. The money for me was never the reason why I surfed.
I enjoy winning, I enjoy competing in things that are fair—or how I feel it's fair.
When you have an association run by the industry, it won't ever be fair for the surfers.
Do you think it's become more fair with the WSL or do you think the same things are happening as the ASP days?
I think they're actually doing a really good job at promoting surfing. For that, you've obviously got to cut them a little bit of slack because what they're trying to achieve is pretty huge for surfing and they're doing a really good job at trying to get there.
Obviously, the surf industry is suffering pretty bad, trying to squeeze blood from a rock right now. There's really not that much money out there, so hat’s off to them for keeping it going and doing a really good job at it.
I have to agree with you there. I think if the WSL weren’t there, the tour would be pretty grim. It'd look like maybe the bodyboard tour.
No, we would be suffering. The Quiksilver's and Billabongs, the Rip Curls, everybody is hurting.
Thank God for these younger guys, that they do have the WSL and that prizemoney has increased. Total coverage of surfing went through the roof. As far as that's concerned, they're doing a great job.
If you don't mind, pivoting a little, Sunny, on the eve of the Triple Crown again, I wanted to talk about your career and your six Triple Crowns between '92 and 2004. How important has that been as a part of your career?
Doing good at home for any surfer is great. Fortunately for me, my run at the tour was at the end of the season when everybody was super, super tired and everybody just wanted to be at home—and I got to be at home [laughs].
For me, going back to Hawaii was never like going back and doing a job. I was at home. I got to sleep in my own bed. I got to be with my family and my friends, and have them at the events.
Your success here has a lot more to do with than your geographical place, I'm sure.
The next biggest thing to winning a World Title was the Triple Crown.
Shit, I had a run-in competing against some of the greatest names in surfing. I got to surf against guys like MR and Rabbit and Shaun Tomson, some of the greats.
Then, I had Tom Curren in his prime, Martin Potter and Mark Occhilupo, Damien Hardman and Barton Lynch, you keep going and I've had guys like Luke Egan, and Rob Bain...
How your career spans those generations is crazy, right?
Yeah, I had guys like Kelly Slater and Shane Powell, Flavio and Neco Padaratz, Fábio Gouveia, Shane Herring—guys who were just young and hungry.
A lot of really great surfers that I came up against. Still keeping that drive alive.
But when Kelly came on tour, it almost seemed like that's what [the ASP] was looking for.
They were looking for that clean-cut, all-American kid that was a fucking incredible surfer, incredible with the press, with people, everybody. So, obviously they wanted him to win.
Surely, you don’t think his victories weren’t organic?
I think they gave Kelly… For sure, I can say they gave Kelly a couple of World Titles. Did he deserve them? Yes. Just like anybody else.
But Rob Machado could have won one of those—could have picked one or two of Kelly's titles. Shane Powell, Shane Herring. Any one of those guys. Does it take anything away from Kelly being the greatest ever? Fuck. No. [laughs]
He's one of my best friends and I think he deserved all 11, it's just, could somebody else have won? For sure. I think they made it a little easier for him. I'm not saying it in a bad manner. Just saying that there were other really good guys who probably could have deserved one or two of the World Titles.
But it always seems like the [ASP], when they want you to win, you're going to win.
When I won my World Title, I felt like they really wanted me to win. Luke [Egan] got a couple of heats given to him during that year for sure, as well as Jake Paterson. I watched every freaking heat that year. Did I think some of the guys that I was going against for the World Title should have made some of their heats? Yes.
You sit down with every surfer, and go over all the heats where the World Title was super close: could the guy have gotten in a second or third? Fuck, yes.
"When Kelly came on tour, it almost seemed like that's what [the ASP] was looking for. They were looking for that clean-cut, all-American kid that was a fucking incredible surfer, incredible with the press, with people, everybody. So, obviously they wanted him to win."
And judging is such an arbitrary thing—it's not like a golf or motocross.
I'm not saying that for sure that they did it, that it was on purpose but at the time it seemed like it was. When you're a competitor and you're watching heats, it almost always seems that way. I've seen fucking Rip Curl guys win heats at Bells with fucking Claw (Rip Curl founder Doug “Claw” Warbrick) standing behind the judges.
That's not a fucking fib, that is a fucking fact. Watching them like, what the fuck? How did that guy just win the heat? Did it have something to do with Claw standing behind the judges? Maybe.
But, it looks pretty square to me, when you are a competitor and you see some guy make the heat and just so happens to be surfing for the sponsor and that sponsor's guy is standing in the judges' tower.
Yes, I guess there's less of that these days because there's a disconnect between the brands.
Do I think the judges did it solely on purpose? Probably not. But, I'm sure that they had that presence, somebody fucking staring down their back. Probably might have changed the outcome of the heat. If I was the owner of a brand, fuck, if I thought I could get away with that I'd probably do the same thing myself.
I think I'd prefer to have Claw over my shoulder than you, actually.
I love Claw. I've done good in all the Rip Curl events. I was fortunate enough to surf for them for a little bit and I love going to Bells because I always felt that those guys are so passionate about having a good event in the ocean. I won at freaking Johanna. I won at Winkipop. They were always willing to move the event to wherever the waves were best.
That is a pretty good testament of somebody trying to have the best event possible.
They're pretty passionate about their event. Do I blame them for doing that? No. Do I think that shady stuff happens? Yes. I mean you're always second-guessing everything.
Sunny setting up a fresh PUKAS in Spain, circa early-'90s.
I might just rewind a bit. We're talking about the Triple Crown as well. The Triple Crown is second to the World Title. Actually, people have said three Triple Crowns equals a World Title. Would you agree with that?
I would disagree. A World Title is a World Title. You can win all the Triple Crowns in the world but you don't get a World Title [laughter]. There ain't no three that's going to add up to a World Title.
[Laughs] How about this: How many Triple Crowns would you trade for another World Title?
I fucking love every single one of my Triple Crowns as much as my World Title. I don't believe in that whole, "if I could go back and change anything..." I wouldn't. I wouldn't change anything. My World Title was so fucking sweet, because I had worked so hard for so long and missed it so many times by just a couple of heats.
I don't think that I would trade anything for that one because that one was so special.
Would have been nice to have more but I wouldn't trade any of my Triple Crowns. For me, being Hawaiian, it's just as important for me to win the Triple Crown as a World Title. I got to win it in front of all my family and friends at home. So, they were even more important for me.
What does it take to win a Triple Crown? Because all those waves are very different.
My recipe was always the same. Go and try to win Haleiwa. That's one of my favorite waves. I've been competing at Haleiwa since 1979, in the Menehune event. I always felt that, even to this day, if I was going to Haleiwa this year, if the waves are six to eight feet, I know I can win.
Then, once you get a win or good placement, it's just about managing points, then you go to Sunset—another really good wave for me to get more points, trying to build either a lead or to play catch up hopefully going into Pipe… Which not many guys who surf get to Pipe. In my day, there were less guys that competed well at Pipe. Now, it seems like pretty much everybody on tour is capable at Pipeline.
That was the only stop on the Triple Crown you never won, wasn't it?
How does that feel? Is that something you were always aiming for?
You know what? I think my biggest downfall with Pipeline is I was always leading the Triple Crown, so when I went to Pipe, I wasn't surfing to win Pipe, I was just surfing to win the Triple Crown.
I would be in the final and I'd have already won the Triple Crown. I still wanted to win, but was just not focused on winning.
For me, it was just going out and trying to get the best wave and if they didn't come I never forced anything. I would just be like, "Ah, whatever." Whereas anywhere else in the world I would have been forcing for that win.
Then again, if you look at all the finals, I was there and I lost to fucking Kelly a bunch of times. I lost to Jamie O'Brien. Guys who surfed Pipe better than me, I don't mind saying it.
Is Andy Irons the only one who has won all the events in the Triple Crown?
I think he's the only one.
Did Derek [Ho] win Haleiwa? No, I don't think, Derek won Sunset and Pipe.
No, I don't think he's won Haleiwa. John John has won—he's won Haleiwa and Sunset but he hasn't won Pipe. He's only won one of the QS's at Pipe.
John hasn't won a Pipe Masters?
No, he hasn't won a Pipe Masters.
He's still young, man. That'll come eventually, the way he surfs Pipe.
For sure. Definitely. While we're discussing this, Andy had four Triple Crowns. He was runner-up to you, I guess, in most of them.
I think Derek's got four. Mike...
Derek's got four as well, does he?
What does Joel Parkinson have, three?
Joel’s got three. Talk about Derek first and then Andy if you don't mind. What's so good about Derek and the Triple Crown? What's his strength?
Derek was just a good competitor. Really good. Derek was pretty incredible.
I spent a lot of my younger years hanging out with Mike and Derek. Surfing with them at Pipe and Sunset and Haleiwa. Those guys just knew the waves, besides being incredible surfers. Derek’s strongest point was just being very confident and knowing where to sit and which wave to pick off.
He'd always be on the best waves.
How Tom Curren was to the rest of the world, that's how Mike and Derek were in Hawaii.
"For me, being Hawaiian it's just as important for me to win the Triple Crown as a World Title. I got to win it in front of all my family and friends at home. So, even more important for me."
Tell me about Andy.
Andy was just more raw. I know a lot of people now have just seen videos of Andy surfing. They really never even do him justice. If you'd ever gone surfing with that guy, he was just a fucking freak.
I was lucky to be living in Hawaii when I won my World Title, because I had Bruce and Andy as sparring partners. I would surf with them every day and be like, "Are you fucking kidding me?" Watching the shit that they would do, we were just baffled.
And Andy was just such a bulldog. You could have given him any wave, he could take any wave, and turn it into a really good wave. His ability was pretty incredible.
Do you think that is what got into Kelly's head? That he was such a bulldog and animal?
I don't know so much if Andy got into Kelly's head. I think it was the fact that Kelly couldn't get into Andy's head.
Kelly is really good at getting into people's heads. The fact that he is Kelly Slater, fucking 11x World Champion. You come up against a guy like that, I don't care how good of a surfer you are, that plays into your mind. But Andy just Didn't. Give. A. Fuck.
[chuckles] Yes, very true. How come Kelly never won Sunset? Could never win?
Because Kelly doesn't surf Sunset.
But, surely his competitive drive would...
I don't care how big your competitive drive is. If you don't surf Sunset, you just don't know it.
He can't make up for—Sunset is…
It's not like going out at Pipe and just taking off, knowing where to take off and stuff. You can figure that out pretty easy. But Sunset is just this big, untameable wave that's got a lot of different variables.
Taking the right wave and turning it into something. Kelly loves Pipe. He puts a lot of time into surfing Pipe. Then, I think he surfs Haleiwa quite a bit, if Pipe's not that good.
But you never see him surfing Sunset.
The fact that he rides such short boards—they don't suit him. Sunset's a big, open, fat wave that you've got to do really long turns on. You just can't do them on those short boards. Pipe you can get away with it, because it's just big, hollow waves. Haleiwa's the same thing. It's a very sucky, pocket-y kind of wave, whereas Sunset's just a big—I don't know… It's a very different wave from Haleiwa and Pipeline.
When you look at Sunset I guess the wave progression has come along and you see what gets done at Haleiwa now. I feel the surfing that you could do 30 years ago [at Sunset] would still win you heats today. What do you think about that?
Surfing I think more or less is going full-circle. My biggest complaint, while I was still on tour, was with the judging. If I'd go down the line and do one huge hack and throw half a fucking ocean away, and if I did it perfectly, then I'd deserve a big score.
You see these guys, they go down the line, they fucking waste the whole wave—the guys that do the airs—they fucking go down the line, they throw this fucking ugly looking air, and they claim and they get a big score.
My biggest complaint, if I went down the line, did one big turn, I wouldn’t get a big score.
I see what you mean.
I have nothing against airs. I can't do them. Do I personally like them? No, not really. I couldn't really care. Do I get awed by it? Yes. You see John John or Filipe or Jordy or any of those guys throw something incredible, I'm like, Fuck, that was sick.
Do I want to do it? No.
I'd rather have an eight-foot wave and just tear into the thing, rather than force a wave trying to do airs.
But I think surfing’s coming full-circle and the guys who can do both obviously are the guys that are winning. The guys that I like watching the most, like Jordy Smith or Julian Wilson, they are two of my favorite surfers, two guys who surf with power and fluidity and are able to do both sides.
Incredible airs, but yet still be able to do the gnarliest carves and look good. Their style is on point. I want John John to win (though I still think sometimes John John doesn't look good doing things).
"But I think surfing’s coming full-circle and the guys who can do both obviously are the guys that are winning. The guys that I like watching the most, like Jordy Smith or Julian Wilson, they are two of my favorite surfers, two guys who surf with power and fluidity and are able to do both sides."
Do you think anyone will ever beat your Triple Crown record?
I think John John's got a pretty good damn chance. Super young, surfs good at all three spots in Hawaii.
I thought Joel would have had a really good shot, but he got fucked over with the prize money. [Ed.’s Note: Long, somewhat unsubstantiated, and certainly complicated story involving Joel not getting his promised prize money, and choosing to not surf the Triple Crown ever again.]
That's right, then he stopped doing it.
Stopped doing it. Andy, I thought for sure would have easily surpassed that.
But, like I said, anything can happen at Pipeline. I would have never thought in '95 all I would have to do is make one fucking heat at Pipeline. There’s no fucking way. I wouldn't have bet against me. But, fuck I went out, I lost.
The one place in the world that you can't lose early is at Pipeline, because you're going to be competing against the wildcards who are no slouches. No matter what, you are going to have to be on your A-Game to beat the wildcards.
I know you brought up Flavio Paderatz and Fábio Gouveia a bit earlier. Do you think Brazilians have matured in Hawaii, that now they can be threats way more so than in the past?
For sure. Since I started the tour in ‘86 ‘til now? Brazil has become a fucking powerhouse.
They’re some of the toughest guys you're going to get anywhere in the world. Yes, it is good to see. I remember when Flavio and Fábio came on tour, they led that whole new generation of Brazilian surfers. They opened the floodgates (not any disrespect to the guys before them). But to me, those two were the biggest things coming out of Brazil. They started the new generation of incredible surfers that came out of Brazil.
Gabriel's got a Triple Crown, Adriano is a World Champion and has won the Pipe Masters, were [Fabio and Flavio] on the same level as today’s Brazilians?
I think back in the day was just really hard to break into the lineup at Pipeline. Back in the day, there wasn't Quiksilver, Billabong, Rip Curl and all those houses, it was just the boys.
Trying to get out there and catch waves, the pecking order was a lot longer, where now it’s not as bad.
Do you think guys like Gabs or, say Adriano, have the skills to win Triple Crowns the next couple of years?
For sure. I think any one of those guys from Brazil can win the Triple Crown. Filipe has come a long way as well. Any one of the guys on tour right now can win the Triple Crown. I think the talent level is pretty incredible.
And the fact that there's less Hawaiian guys that are able to get into the Pipe Masters, it really leaves the local guys out of Hawaii and out of the Triple Crown.
Basically, if you're not on tour, you're not going to win the Triple Crown. It’s almost impossible. There's only two spots at the Pipe Masters and it's open to other guys outside of Hawaii.
What do you think about the chances of someone like Mason?
For sure. If Mason can just get into the Pipe Masters, he'd have a better chance at it.
What do you think about the North Shore—Pipe, even—becoming high performance, almost air waves?
If I fucking see a kid just doing airs here, in Hawaii, I think they should be shot. [laughter]
Hawaii is the place to go and do some power surfing. Leave that fucking aerial, fucking kids trick shit at fucking home.
This is Hawaii, bring your fucking power game.
Okay, what do you think of the way that John does air on the still solid days?
I think it's lame [laughter].
Stay on rail and on the face?
Yes, to me that looks way better.
Why is it so important for a young surfer to perform in Hawaii?
That's where you make your name. That always has been and always will be. I mean, you can be the best surfer anywhere else in the world. But, you take a great surfer and you put them in Hawaii, and he does average? That doesn't look very good.
A great surfer who looks average in Hawaii is no longer a great surfer?
Yes. Damien Hardman, he’s a great friend of mine, who was what, a two-time World Champ? He just never really looked good in Hawaii for some reason.
For me, I was a little younger than him, so I only gave him shit. Even though I fucking love the way Damien Hardman surfs, I just thought, you should have done better in Hawaii, you look uncomfortable to me.
What does a surfer need to be more comfortable in Hawaii? What do they need to do?
I don't know about being comfortable. I'm never comfortable. I just think, looking comfortable and assured.
My idea of looking comfortable is to look at any photos of Tom Curren surfing Pipe, Sunset, or Haleiwa. To me, that's my ideal: you should look comfortable, and Tommy, until this day, you put him in any waves, he still looks comfortable—very powerful drawing out lines, as opposed to just…
You can either look like a lion or you can look like a kitten. I think a lot of guys look like kittens.
Very few lions.
The guys who look like lions, those are guys that tend to excel in events. Those kittens, they're just still aspiring to be lions. I'm not saying this as a bad thing. Eventually, you outgrow that or—
Or you don't.
Yes, like nature: kill or be killed.
[Laughs] That's so good.
Yes, I'm looking forward to watching. I'm heartbroken that I don't get to compete this year. The first time since 1986, I won't be competing in Hawaii. But, I'll be on the web watching. [chuckles]. Like everything, sad circle of life, man.
Maybe that will drag you into the commentary booth to spill some truth. Probably not.
I'm sure I'll go up there. I'm going to show up later and heckle people for sure.
I think that's a must from all of us older guys. Showing up and giving the younger guys a hard time.
I like to give all these younger guys a hard time, and it's not so much trying to punk them out in a bad manner. It's more just trying to give them the little extra push, to help them man up and become the surfers I think that every guy on tour should be. I think the better one person is, it just kind of draws everybody along. So, I just pass the knowledge.
I think every single one of the guys on tour is capable of being a real champ. It's just… I think the difference is confidence, really. If you could feel that way all year long, in every single heat.
For every surfer, your talent can only take you to a certain level. But man, if you really believe in yourself mentally, you can take your level way higher. Most surfer's biggest downfall is the fact that they're not confident.
Throughout my whole career, I was like, "Fuck, I don't give a fuck, I'll kick your fucking ass."
I knew I was a better surfer. For me, that was where my longevity came, because I knew what I could do. I was confident with what I could do.
I loved needing a score with a minute to go, because for me I was never like, "I won't get the score." I was like, "Fucking give me the waves, give me the fucking waves!"
Thank you Sunny, I appreciate it. Any final thoughts?
Over the years, a lot of people are like, "Ah fuck him, he's cocky da da da da da". I say shit because that's what I believe. I love surfing. I love watching the young guys do well. I love seeing everybody making more money and fuck, I’m glad I ever got to be part of it.
For me, you know, it's pretty incredible to be a surfer. I always said I enjoy surfing because I enjoy surfing, not because I get paid or anything. You know? I'm off tour and I don't get paid... but I still get to go surfing, you know? It's my life, I love to do it.
Good luck making a ruckus on the North Shore. I'm looking forward to it.
You coming out?
Yes, we'll definitely be out early December.
Hit me up for sure. Let's go for a surf, I have all kinds of time to kill.