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Prison-bound Garcia finds refuge in surf

Times Staff Writer

As he did as a troubled youth growing up on Oahu’s rugged west side, Sunny Garcia is turning to the ocean for salvation.

Surfing helped keep him out of serious trouble. Garcia became a star on the elite world tour, a world champion, and he won the prestigious Vans Triple Crown of Surfing a record six times.

He retired from the World Championship Tour after last season, wanting to spend more time with his wife and his kids from a previous marriage. Garcia, a burly Hawaiian notorious for his quick temper, was content.

But it turned out that surfing hadn’t kept him out of serious trouble, or taught him about responsibility and choosing the right people to watch over his interests.

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Garcia, 36, who now lives in Orange County, was arrested earlier this year for tax fraud and recently sentenced by a San Diego judge to three months in prison, followed by seven months of house arrest.

Making matters worse, he’s going through a divorce so “nasty,” he said, that spending three months in a minimum-security facility “is the least of my worries.”

On the bright side, he said, the judge could have dealt a much harsher sentence and was not obliged to delay it until Jan. 12, allowing Garcia to compete in this year’s Triple Crown, which runs today through Dec. 20 on Oahu’s North Shore.

Garcia intends to use the three-contest series -- at Haleiwa, Sunset Beach and Pipeline -- to relaunch his career, because he does not want it to end on such a sour note.

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“I’m not here to just show up and wave at people,” he said during a phone interview from a friend’s house at Sunset Beach. “I’ve got a lot of frustration to vent, and plenty of motivation.”

Asked whether he’ll be allowed to compete during his probationary house arrest, he answered, “I don’t even know. I’ll have to ask the judge.”

Admittedly out of shape, Garcia has been getting up at dawn, lifting weights, running and surfing as much as possible.

The Triple Crown is close to his heart, partly because it’s held on the same seven-mile stretch of North Shore coastline that afforded him refuge from his broken home -- his father left when he was 6, leaving his mother to care for the family on a $12,000 hotel housekeeper’s salary.

Plus, the North Shore is considered the ultimate proving ground for surfers from around the world, and Hawaiians have won the Triple Crown for the last seven years.

Among other Triple Crown story lines:

* Will Kelly Slater, who recently clinched his eighth world title, maintain enough drive and focus to claim the premiere event of the season, the season-ending Rip Curl Pro Pipeline Masters?

* Better question: Will Slater finally retire after this season, at 34, as he keeps threatening to do? Perhaps not. Rumor has it Quiksilver is offering its star athlete a $10-million bonus if he sticks around long enough to win 10 world titles.

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* Can Hawaii’s Andy Irons, a three-time world champion before being upstaged the last two seasons by Slater, find the inspiration to defend his Triple Crown and Pipeline Masters titles?

Irons, who won consecutive world titles from 2002 to 2004, said that winning the Triple Crown is as tough and nearly as prestigious. He won the Triple Crown in 2002, 2003 and 2005.

* Will Layne Beachley, 34, a six-time world champion from Australia who struggled in recent years, be able to hold her ratings lead and claim an unprecedented seventh world title?

* Will anyone break Hawaii’s seven-year grasp on the men’s Triple Crown championship?

Probably not, as Slater, a two-time Triple Crown champion from Cocoa Beach, Fla., no longer competes in the entire series and this year might only compete in the season-ending Pipeline Masters, the only WCT event in the series.

pete.thomas@latimes.com


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