Victoria Feige is an athlete in uncharted waters.
The 37-year-old from Vancouver made history earlier this month by becoming the first female Para surfer to win four world titles, putting her at the forefront of a fast-growing sport.
With four straight gold medals at the sport’s premier event, Feige is leading the charge as Para-surfing reaches new heights and moves towards Paralympic inclusion.
“I keep competing because I love it, I love the community, and I feel like I have further to go. It’s exciting,” Feige told CBC Sports.
Feige grew up in the fast-paced world of board sports – whether it was on the snow, pavement or water. She started surfing at the age of 16 in Tofino, BC and immediately fell in love with the sport.
The epitome of resilience, Feige rose to the top of her sport after initially believing her surfing dreams were over following a life-changing injury.
She suffered a traumatic spinal fracture and spinal cord injury while snowboarding at 18, leaving her partially paralyzed from the waist down and in a wheelchair. But Feige took an opportunity with Para-surfing – a second chance to pursue her passion – and the results have been nothing short of incredible.
Feige has been surfing for Team Canada since 2016, winning her first world title just three years later. Her most recent World Championship victory in Pismo Beach, California, made her the winningest woman in Para surfing history.
“It’s amazing. I never thought this would happen. After my spinal cord injury, I never thought I’d be able to surf at a high level. It’s been a wonderful, pleasant surprise to progress in my surfing, and to do so well too in the competitions,” Feige said.
Adaptive surfing community
Feige says she would not have achieved her success without the help of the adaptive surfing environment, which helped her develop into a world champion while showing her what was possible in the sport.
Feige was shocked by the level of skill on display at her first Para-surfing World Championships in 2016, and it changed her perspective on what she could achieve on a surfboard after her injury.
“I had a sense of loss that I wouldn’t be able to surf at a high level,” Feige said. “When I saw that adaptive surfers could really push the limits and do more progressive maneuvers … it really changed my perspective on what was possible.”
The adaptive surfing community also helped guide Feige with one-on-one coaching when she was new to the sport, paving the way for her rapid progression.
“Even though we compete against each other, we all help each other as well. So much of the coaching has been informal from the other adaptive surfers,” Feige said.
Competing in the women’s knee division, Feige took her game to a new level in 2022. She won every competition leading up to her record-setting world title, including the Hawaii Adaptive Surfing Championships in June and the English Adaptive Surfing Open in July in Bristol, England .
Moving to Hawaii
Feige lives and breathes surfing, which is why she moved to Hawaii in 2021 to master her craft on the best waves and continue to push the sport forward.
“I moved to the North Shore of Oahu, which is a surfing mecca, and I’m 10 minutes away from some of the best waves in the world. While I’m young and strong and have this moment to really commit to surfing at the highest level, I want keep going and see how far I can go,” Feige said.
Feige says the move has helped her development in several ways, with easy access to the beach and no shortage of challenging waves to sharpen her skills.
“Hawaii is both a training ground and a proving ground. You can drive anywhere on the island and probably find something to surf. So I surf a lot more often, I try different boards,” Feige said.
“It’s easier in warm water rather than in colder Tofino, which isn’t as accessible in terms of beaches.”
There’s also a thriving adaptive surfing community on Oahu, which gives Feige plenty of friends to surf with every day as she continues to chase her dreams.
“I love Canada, but moving to Hawaii to train in surfing has been a really good idea,” Feige said.
Feige is excited to help the sport grow, with the ultimate goal of Paralympic inclusion in 2028.
While disabled surfing made its Olympic debut in Tokyo last year, Para-surfing is not currently part of the Paralympic programme. The sport will not be at the Paralympics in Paris in 2024, but the International Surfing Association (ISA) is pushing for the sport to make its debut at the 2028 Games in Los Angeles, with a decision expected in the New Year.
Surf Canada has been supportive in recent years — including sending surf team head coach Shannon Brown to work with Canada’s adaptive team at worlds — but there’s only so much money to go around.
“One of the reasons we want Para-surfing in the Paralympics is that there will be funding for the competitions,” Feige said.
The sport is at a pivotal point in its development, and Feige wants to see it reach its full potential on the biggest international stage with full financial support from national federations.
“If it makes it into the Paralympics, all of our Para-surfing societies and all of the national surfing federations will either get more money or put some funds aside to support their Para athletes. Surf Canada has been very supportive of me, but it would be very great to have training camps and flights and accommodations paid for,” Feige said.
Paying it forward
A true ambassador for Parasurfing, Feige wants to help bring new people – especially women – to the exciting sport.
Canada had a small five-member team at the 2022 World Championships, but Feige hopes to see that number grow going forward.
“If there are people with or without disabilities who want to start surfing, I hope they know that it is possible. Regardless of age, regardless of background, or whether they have a disability like mine or not, I hope they know that surfing is for everyone, the ocean is for everyone,” Feige said.
Above all, Feige wants to make newcomers feel as welcome as the community made her feel back in 2016, which made all the difference in her athletic journey.
The sport’s bright future was on full display at worlds this month, with seven new world champions and a wealth of young talent in every division.
Along with the kneeling division, Para surfers also compete in visually impaired, standing, sitting and prone divisions, with a panel of judges deciding the final results.
Canadian teammate Ling Pai, also from Vancouver, won her third bronze medal in the visually impaired women’s division, while compatriot Nathan Smids made it to the semi-finals in the men’s grandstand division.
The seventh edition of the ISA event was the largest to date with 181 competitors and Feige has been pleased to see female representation grow since its debut six years ago. She is excited to see the level of competition continue to rise.
“It’s going to be very exciting over the next few years to see how the level of adaptive surfing evolves and to see all the new faces that come and hopefully shock the world,” Feige said.