Canada’s Adaptive Surfing Queen
Vancouver, British Columbia’s Victoria “Tori” Feige defended her world adaptive surfing title last March on the shores of La Jolla, California.
At the 2020 AmpSurf ISA World Para Surfing Championship, one of the final large sporting events to take place in North America before the COVID-19 pandemic forced it all to shut down, Feige out-performed seven other competitors in the women’s kneel division to bring home the Gold Medal.
“The coolest thing about adaptive surfing, whether you’re a stand-up or not, when you catch that wave, you feel the speed and acceleration. For me, I’m captivated by it. I love it once you get that rush,” describes Feige over the telephone on day nine of her 14-day quarantine.
About 133 athletes from 22 countries competed in the World Para Surfing Championship, nearly doubling the number of athletes who participated in the inaugural event in 2015. Para Surfing athletes are grouped into one of eight classifications, depending on their particular physical conditions. There are six Physical Para Surf Classes and two Visual Sport Classes.
Feige, a full-time clinical therapist, calls herself a “surf nerd.” She idolizes professional Australian surfer Stephanie Gilmore, the seven-time world champion on the Women’s ASP World Tour. Feige’s free time and extra income goes towards surf trips and she’s constantly watching video analysis, working on her paddle fitness or tinkering with her board setup.
“Because it’s a lower centre of gravity, a lot of people run twin fins. You can pivot faster,” she says. “Right now I have a 5’ 8” modern short-wide. It’s a twin-kinda-fish-shape. It works really well for me.”
She can handle four- to six-foot faces fine, but like most adventure-driven athletes, she often finds herself in out-of- bounds scenarios.
“There was one day in Hawaii where the swell got a lot bigger, a lot faster than expected. Just to be in the water when it was proper five- foot Hawaiian [10-foot faces]... Just to be out in that much water moving and the ocean when it’s that fierce, it’s crazy accelerating. I love it,” she says.
At the age of 18, Feige overshot a jump while snowboarding and landed badly from 12 to 15 feet in the air. She sustained a spinal fracture and low incomplete spinal cord injury.
“It took a while to master duck-diving. I’m really proud of myself for that. [The skill] opens so many doors to get into bigger conditions and get on smaller boards,” says Feige, who is now in her early 30s.
Through trial-and-error she taught herself to duck-dive at the local swimming pool and over the course of two years she transitioned from a longboard to the shortboard she currently rides. Feige won her first Para Surfing World Title in 2018/2019 on a longboard, in fact.
“The longboard was great for stability and to get me going, but now that I have moved up to shorter boards, it’s so much easier to travel and fly and it’s more maneuverable, it’s more exciting. There are days where I am just laughing out in the line-up ‘cause it just feels great.”
Feige hopes her story will inspire other people with injuries to try adaptive surfing.
“I just want to keep growing the sport. I think there are a lot of people, with injuries or without, who surf on vacation. If you want to progress, there is a way you can do that,” says the world surfing Gold Medalist and certified sit-ski instructor.
Adaptive surfing is moving towards the Paralympics. The International Surfing Association (ISA) has lobbied for the sport’s inclusion in the Paralympics and most recently applied for inclusion in the Santiago 2023 Para Pan Am Games.
“Part of that depends on getting more adaptive surfers, especially women, to help grow the sport,” notes Feige.
Her heart might belong to Long Beach in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve—she refers to the spot as her favourite wave—but like most die-hard surfers, Feige is working towards the Holy Grail of surfing more than anything.
“I’d love to get to the level where I am getting barrelled on epic waves,” she says.