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 rapidly 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 progresses toward Paralympic inclusion.
"I keep on 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 world of board sports — whether it was on the snow, pavement or water. She began surfing at the age of 16 in Tofino, B.C., instantly falling in love with the sport.
"I loved it from my first wave. The burst of speed and the acceleration, being in the ocean, I knew I loved surfing," Feige said.
The embodiment of resilience, Feige rose to the top of her sport after initially thinking her surfing dreams were over following a life-changing injury.
She sustained 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 seized 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 latest world championship victory in Pismo Beach, Calif., 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 that I could surf at a high level. It's been a wonderful, joyous surprise to progress in my surfing, and also do so well in the competitions," Feige said.
Adaptive surfing community
Feige says she would not have achieved her success without the help of the adaptive surfing community, 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 championship in 2016, and it changed her perspective about what she could accomplish 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 manoeuvres … that really changed my perspective about what was possible."
The adaptive surfing community also helped guide Feige with one-one-one coaching when she was new to the sport, paving the way for her quick progression.
"Even though we compete against each other, we all help each other too. So a lot of coaching has been informally from the other adaptive surfers," Feige said.
Competing in the women's kneel 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.
Relocating to Hawaii
Feige lives and breathes surfing, which is why she relocated to Hawaii in 2021 to master her craft on the best waves, continuing to push the sport forward.
"I moved to the North Shore of Oahu, which is surfing Mecca, and I'm 10 minutes away from some of the best waves in the world. While I am young and strong and have this moment to really pursue surfing at the highest level, I want to keep going and see how far I can go," Feige said.
Feige says the move has helped her development in multiple ways, with easy beach access 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 much more often, I'm trying different boards," Feige said.
"It's easier in warm water rather than in colder Tofino, which is not as accessible in terms of beaches."
There is also a thriving adaptive surfing community on Oahu, giving 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 able-bodied surfing made its Olympic debut last year in Tokyo, Para surfing is currently not part of the Paralympic program. The sport won't be at the Paris Paralympics 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.
Along with the chance to compete for Paralympic gold, Feige knows Paralympic inclusion would also bring much-needed funding for Canada's Para surfing team.
Surf Canada has been supportive in recent years — including sending national surf team head coach Shannon Brown to work with Canada's adaptive team at worlds — but there is only so much money to go around.
"One of the reasons we want Para surfing in the Paralympics is that then there will be funding for the competitions," Feige said.
The sport is at a pivotal time 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 gets into the Paralympics, all of our Para surf communities and all of the national surf federations will either get more money or set aside some funds to support their Para athletes. Surf Canada has been very supportive of me, but it would be really great to have training camps and flights and accommodations paid for," Feige said.
Paying it forward
A true ambassador for Para surfing, Feige wants to help get new people — particularly women — into the exciting sport.
Canada had a small five-member team at the 2022 world championship, but Feige hopes to see that number grow moving forward.
"If there are people with or without disabilities who want to get into surfing, I hope they know that it's possible. No matter what the age, no matter what their background, or if they have a disability like mine or not, I hope that they know that surfing is for everyone, the ocean is for everyone," Feige said.
Above all else, Feige wants to make newcomers feel as welcome as the community made her feel back in 2016, something that made all the difference on her athletic journey.
"People helped me when I was new, and that's partly why I could have such incredible results. So if I can pay it forward, I absolutely want to do that," Feige said.
The sport's bright future was on full display at worlds this month, with seven new world champions and a plethora of young talent in every division.
Along with the kneel division, Para surfers also compete in visually impaired, stand, sit and prone divisions, with a group of judges determining the final scores.
Canadian teammate Ling Pai, also from Vancouver, won her third bronze medal in the women's visually impaired division, while compatriot Nathan Smids made it to the semifinals in the men's stand division.
The seventh edition of the ISA event was the biggest to date with 181 competitors, and Feige has been happy to see female representation grow since her debut six years ago. She is excited to see the level of competition continue to rise.
"It's going to be really exciting in the next few years to see how the level of adaptive surfing progresses, and to see all the new faces that are coming up and will hopefully shock the world," Feige said.