Victoria Feige was 18 and snowboarding during spring break in 2004 when she overshot a jump and landed so hard that shards of bone in her spine were crushed and exploded. Everything went tingly and numb from the waist down.
At first she thought she had broken a leg and then broken a pelvis. Then she realized it was her back.
In the crash, Feige fractured vertebrae along her lower spine. That left her partially paralyzed and able to feel only a bit of sensation below where the injury occurred.
“I come from a medical family and I was like, ‘Oh dear, I really screwed up,’” Feige, now 38, says in a video call from Vancouver. “But I didn’t expect to have a permanent injury.
“My feet are adorable but useless,” she adds with a laugh.
Feige is the best woman in the world at paralympic surfing. She has won four consecutive world championships on the International Surfing Association and is currently top-ranked in her division on the Association of Adaptive Surfing Professionals World Tour.
At events she abandons her wheelchair and crawls from the edge of the sand to the ocean while pushing her five-foot-plus surfboard alongside her. Once in the water she is a strong paddler and swimmer and through exhaustive rehab learned to climb onto her knees and kneels as she chases a wave.
“Often times for people that are in wheelchairs it is isolating,” Feige says. “You go to a concert and there is a special place to sit. But when I am in the water it is where I feel the most free. I can go anywhere I want.
“I am equal. There is no tokenness and no special treatment.”
Feige was born in Calgary but moved to Vancouver as a toddler. She loves the outdoors, learned to ski at 3, started snowboarding at 8, skateboarding at 11 and skim boarding on the tidal flats in Vancouver after that.
“I liked the risk, I liked the rush, I liked to be in the air,” she says. “I have two older brothers and for as long as I can remember I loved rough-and-tumble sports and still do.”
At 16, she begged her mother to take her surfing in Tofino for her birthday, took one lesson and fell in love.
“I was hooked from the first wave,” Feige says.
At the time of her injury, she was training to become a backcountry skiing tour guide. It wasn’t until she had major surgery that she realized that would be impossible.
“Certainly I had a huge sense of loss in that I would never be able to do this as a paraplegic or even with partial paralysis,” Feige says. “But the other thing I had a sense of loss about, and felt that I was never going to be able to do, was surfing.
“When I first got injured, I knew you had to be strong in the water, you need strength and skill. I mean, how was I even going to get over the sand. I thought, ‘How could I ever be a real surfer?’”
She was unable to participate in impact-level sports until her spine healed. Two years later, she travelled to Hawaii and surfed again for the first time with an instructor to make sure she would be safe.
“We went tandem at first and it was so much fun,” she says.
At one point, as he held her by the feet, she did a handstand on her board. She figured she could still surf a little bit for fun, but never competitively.
She went on to become a physical therapist in B.C. and Hawaii and is among only a few wheelchair users to do so. In her second year of graduate school at the University of British Columbia she was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Canadian Physiotherapy Congress so she could explain how she does it.
She wears ankle braces that allow her to stand for short periods to perform lumbar manipulations. She also is able to do some treatments while seated on a stationary stool or while she kneels beside clients. She has worked with stroke victims to help them regain their gait.
“Functionally I became a wheelchair user, but if you take away some of the emotion it then becomes a matter of problem solving,” Feige says. “People focus on my surfing but for me becoming a good clinician was the biggest mountain to climb and really became my focus for 10 years or so.
“I love the analysis of movement and I like working with people. If you really love something you can often find a way to have it in your life.”
In 2016 a friend who is also in a wheelchair and likes to surf texted her and asked if she wanted to travel to California to watch the International Surfing Association’s world para championships. A few days later she was in La Jolla, Calif., and actually entered the event.
“It is kind of a wild story,” Feige says. “I had done one disabled surfing event and when I got there there were lots of volunteers and people that put you in a beach chair and carried you into the water and people clapped and that was it.
“This was a four-day thing. I was so excited to be in the ocean I blew all of my energy on the first day and then I competed and finished next-to-last. But I was astounded by some of the other surfers and it really changed my perspective about what adaptive surfing could be and what was possible for myself.”
She has taken the past year and a half off from work to train on Hawaii’s north shore and travels to competitions. Rip Curl, a surfing company, helps pay for her gear and used its credit-card points last year to help pay some of her travel expenses.
A couple of years ago, she sold her small place in Vancouver and has also used those funds to further her career and to help pay medical costs.
“I just love it and I love the people, too,” Feige says. “They all have wild stories about catastrophic injuries – shark attacks, car and motorcycle accidents or snowboards or skiing or skydiving. They have had such serious injuries but are just so full of life. I found my community.”
About a year and a half ago she was diagnosed with bladder cancer.
“It is going to be okay,” she says. She is halfway through a three-year treatment protocol. “I am responding and am cancer free. When it happened, it changed my priorities from ‘I am young and strong and healthy-ish’ to ‘I am going to pursue surfing at the highest level.’
“I have to seize the moment.”