Sunny Garcia will tuck his surfboard under his arm, stroll to the water's edge and slash through the Huntington Beach saltwater like a Ginsu knife cutting through fresh bread.
On the surface, the 38-year-old Hawaiian will probably appear as intense as ever when he paddles out for his opening-round heat today at the Honda U.S. Open of Surfing, but beneath Garcia's broad shoulders, he'll be breathing considerably easier.
Garcia, the 2000 world champion, has bounced back from a three-month stint in federal prison and six months of house arrest after pleading guilty to tax evasion charges to string together another determined run at requalifying for the exclusive World Championship Tour.
Garcia is ranked No. 8 in the World Qualifying Series. The top 16 at season's end qualify for the 46-man WCT.
"Before I went to prison, I made a pact with myself that I would try my hardest to get back on tour and retire on my own note," he said. "To be back, traveling, hanging with my friends, doing what I love to do, is such a relief."
Garcia hasn't lost any zest for competition, but his edginess has softened considerably.
"When I went to prison, I lost all my sponsors," he said. "I've got some new sponsors that are really good and they're not putting any kind of pressure on me to requalify, or even do the tour, for that matter. They really don't even care, they just want me to go out and surf and have fun."
For one of the few times in the last six months, however, surfing won't be his main priority. After Garcia competes in the round of 96 alongside the Huntington Beach Pier, he's scheduled to marry Colleen McCullough in Laguna Beach.
It's the third marriage for Garcia, who has three teenagers from his first marriage. Garcia said his relationship with McCullough helped put his life and career back on track.
Two years ago, Garcia entered this event while awaiting sentencing on the tax evasion charges brought after he failed to report more than $400,000 in prize money earned from 1996 to 2001. Last year, he received permission from his probation officer to compete but had to paddle out with an electronic monitoring device attached to his ankle.
"I was so happy to be out of the house and in the water that it didn't really even bother me," Garcia said of the device. "You couldn't have done anything to bother me while I was in the water."
His probation officer wasn't completely accommodating with his work schedule, however.
During last year's U.S. Open, Garcia was not allowed to compete in a qualifying heat for a wild-card spot into the Boost Mobile Pro, a WCT event held later that year in San Clemente. The decision made Garcia irate; he was trying to earn money toward his seven-figure restitution.
With his freedom restored last winter, Garcia's first goal was to get himself into prime physical condition before heading on the long, grinding World Qualifying Series tour. His competitors have noticed a difference.
"He looks really good, probably the fittest I've ever seen him," said Nathaniel Curran of Oxnard, who is ranked No. 4 on the WQS. "You watch his heats and he doesn't catch that many waves, but when he does catch a set wave, he knows what he's doing."
Garcia started the season slowly, but a fifth-place finish in Scotland in late April catapulted him into the top 20 in the WQS rankings. He has since scratched out enough points to climb into the top 10. Garcia isn't content to just qualify for the WCT, however.
"My goal is to win the QS," he said.
If Garcia is near the top of the standings heading into November, he will have a surfer's version of home-field advantage.
The season concludes with consecutive six-star events on Oahu, the Reef Hawaiian Pro in Haleiwa from Nov. 12 to 23, followed by the season-ending O'Neill World Cup at Sunset Beach from Nov. 24 to Dec. 6. Garcia grew up in Waianae on the western shore of Oahu, so he knows those breaks better than most.
"If he's anywhere close coming into Hawaii, I think it will be a done deal," said former WCT veteran Cory Lopez of Laguna Niguel.
And then his long comeback will finally be complete.