This feature interview with Jess Kimura was first published in The Snowboarder’s Journal Issue 18.4.
Yet Jess has hung on. Even thrived. She second-guessed herself plenty, but she kept her foot on the gas, sometimes without respect for her long-term health. And, eventually, she succeeded. Still, her demons chased her through life. The slams, the anxiety, they took their toll. Still, she’s here. And she’s as influential as ever.
Recently, we caught up with Jess at her home in Squamish, BC. She’d been buried in learning to edit a video on the go, pushing to give more ladies the chance to succeed as snowboarders, to finish The Uninvited II. The sequel to an all-female, street-oriented action flick funded by her personal savings account, it’s as grassroots as it gets. It’s evidence that Jess is embracing her role as mentor. It’s evidence of her willingness to lay it all on the line for what she believes. And it’s evidence of her own healing process.
Despite the mounting pressure of a self-produced project launching in a week’s time, Jess gave us her full, undivided attention. For two hours she laughed and cried and swore. She opened up as few would, as real as it gets. And at the end of it all, it felt like Jess is finally finding some peace through giving back.
The Snowboarder’s Journal: You were born and raised in Vernon, BC. What was it like growing up there?
Jess Kimura: We had SilverStar [Mountain Resort] 15 minutes from town, so everyone skied. Around grade eight, all my friends switched to snowboarding. I got a cheap board at the ski swap, which was way too big for me—a Sims Salasnek 158 with the skate trucks on the bottom. It was so heavy. The bindings would pop off halfway down the run. I couldn’t turn toeside. I hated the feeling of my friends all waiting for me.
Then, one day, these guys were building a jump on “the Knoll” above the parking lot, and they said it was a backflip-only jump, and I was like, “Bitch, I can do a backflip,” because I was in gymnastics. I straight-lined it toward the jump, hucked a backflip onto my head, and cartwheeled into the parking lot. Everyone was like, “Whoa! That was sick!” I thought, “I did something cool and it was really easy.” And all it took was being myself, trying something stupid. I was like, “I’m a fucking boarder.”
The next year my mom got me a used demo board that actually fit me and the bindings stayed done up. I started landing on my feet. Gymnastics helped.
How long were you in gymnastics?
I started when I was pretty young, 6 or 7. I was really into it by the time I started liking snowboarding, around 14 or 15 years old.
I’m guessing your parents got you started on that? What were your parents like?
Yeah. My dad [Blake] worked for the city and my mom [Denise] worked with special needs kids. My dad was from a second-generation immigrant Japanese family. My mom was from a first-generation immigrant Belgian family. I always thought of my mom as someone who played it safe—not a risk taker or rebel. When I think about it now, her super Catholic European family wasn’t happy that she wanted to marry, as they would say, an “Oriental” guy. But she did it anyway, had me and my sister, and eventually her family grew to love my dad as much as she did.
She took maybe the biggest risk she could have taken, in that sense?
Yeah. My dad’s parents were living in Prince Rupert, BC. They were taken to Alberta during World War II and put in an internment camp. Their fishing boats and property were all taken away. He was born shortly afterward. My mom’s family were sugar beet farmers in Alberta. That’s where they met.
Were they pretty supportive?
They were supportive in gymnastics and all the other sports I played, but I don’t think they saw snowboarding as something worthwhile at first. I quit gymnastics for it. I quit everything for it. I quit school for it. But now my mom will be like, “A new building went up in town. I saw some ledges and handrails, maybe a really cool roof you could jump off.” There’s this handrail in front of our house and if she sees skiers or snowboarders setting it up, she’ll run out extension cords with lights and bring them hot chocolate. Back then, I think they felt like I was throwing away a lot of potential. I was in enriched learning programs, they thought I was going to be a doctor, something that looks good on paper, and I was wasting that.
You shifted away from all of that though.
I always knew, for some reason, that my life was going to have some hard times in it. It was like I was trying to prepare. I moved out when I was 16 with a sketchy boyfriend and quit school. I was working at Wendy’s, walking all the way across town to get home after my midnight shift. I didn’t want help. I just wanted to be independent.
You wound up going to an alternative school?
There was a good ski racing program in Vernon, and they had a school that let them go to the hill all the time. We didn’t have anything like that for snowboarders. I was like, “I want that.” So, I freestyled it. There was this school for dropouts. I was identifying with the burnouts and the outcasts, and that’s where they went. Vernon was super rough around the edges, and I’d pretty much grown up at the skatepark, where there was always sketchy shit going on—a lot of homeless people, a lot of meth. I went to that school and didn’t quite graduate—I went to graduation, but I still had a couple credits left.
Were you still focused on snowboarding?
From 14 to 17, snowboarding was all I thought about. When I was 18, I started fading out. I was hanging out with the wrong people and none of them snowboarded. There’s a period of my life between the ages of 18 and 22 that I’ve blocked out of my head. But I do remember that I was not really giving a shit, especially when I was dating that guy. I was just trying to survive. He didn’t snowboard, he was more like a metalhead, skate rat, and was into some bad shit.
I worked to pay rent but didn’t have money to insure my car to go up to the hill. I didn’t think that I had any kind of freestyle potential, really, because as much as I was doing tricks, we didn’t even have a park. We just had a pipe. So I would do the pipe events and race boardercross. I felt like maybe I just sucked. No matter what I did at the competitions, I felt like the judges weren’t even looking half the time. But I liked boardercross because whoever crossed the finish line first would win.
And you did well, right? Were you rolling solo and winning?
It was me and my best friend, Karla Charlton. We didn’t have a coach. We’d be warming up each other’s legs and waxing our own boards and being super sketchy. I won a race once and I lit up a cigarette in the finish corral. This guy runs over, rips it out of my hand. He’s like, “This is on TV! You can’t be doing this!” I was like, “I just won the race, dude. I’m going to have a smoke.”
How did you afford it?
We would do the Neil Edgeworth every year because they had prize money. The Nor-Ams had prize money. I always had jobs, too. One dude at the local newspaper was hyped on us, so he’d write these articles like, “These girls really want to compete and they said that they’ll sleep on the ground if they have to.” People from Vernon, different businesses, would give us $100 here, $100 there. We had a hot-dog sale in front of Safeway that made enough to get to Quebec for Nationals and actually sleep in a hotel.
You did well enough at Nationals to go to Switzerland, right?
I think I got second and Karla got fourth. I got invited to a World Cup in Switzerland, but I didn’t feel like part of the team. The coach was an asshole, this Austrian skier. He’d say stuff like, “You have no skills, no technique, I don’t know how you are going to race.” I was like, “I’m going to die.” Then I did the race and did nearly die—I crashed so bad I had to get helivaced out.
They took me to a hospital in Germany. I had a super-bad concussion, bruised vertebrae in my neck. A year before I had met these Swiss dudes at Blunt Brothers [cannabis shop] in Vancouver. I wrote down their information and they were like, “If you’re ever in Switzerland, call us up.” So I called them from the hospital: “Remember me?” They drove from Switzerland to come get me. I never saw the coach, the team, never heard from them, not even a phone call to check in. I ended up flying home early with a really expensive helicopter and hospital bill. I had a strong disdain for organized snowboarding after that.
That’s understandable. Then you started filming?
That was the beginning of the low point when I didn’t snowboard for a couple years. I felt like I completely failed. I internalized that experience. It was supposed to be my chance to make it, to show my parents I can go to the Olympics. I got really depressed and started having a lot of anxiety. I didn’t know what was wrong. I felt sick all the time. I couldn’t eat anything. I kept going to the doctor and he would say, “Try this prescription, or this other one.” Once he gave me a prescription for rosacea—I was like, “Dude, it’s my stomach!”
Eventually he gave me this sample pack of what I now know to be strong SSRI3 antidepressants. He didn’t give me any other info other than I should “try taking these.” I took them for a couple weeks and they made me feel really sick to my stomach—they had a lot of bad side effects. I was working at a skate shop at the time, and I kept having to go into the back because I felt like I was going to throw up. So I was like, “They’re making me feel worse. I’m going to stop taking them.” I didn’t realize that the worst thing you can do is stop taking them suddenly.
Shortly afterward I spiraled into a gnarly mental health crisis. I told my mom and she took me to the hospital. They put me in this youth mental health program where I was assigned a psychiatrist, and he was such an asshole. He diagnosed me with schizophrenia—he never asked me any questions about that medication I was on. They medicated the shit out of me. I was on 6 to 10 different prescriptions at any given time—tranquilizers, benzos, anti-psychotics, which make you gain weight so fast. I went from thinking, “I want to be an athlete,” to feeling like people were laughing at me when I went out in public. When I saw people I knew, they didn’t even recognize me.
They turned me into a zombie. I couldn’t get out of bed. I felt like I slept for a year and a half. I probably did because I didn’t want to be awake anyway. I tried to tell the doctor I wasn’t hearing voices, but he told me that’s because I’m on the right medication. I was like, “I’m pretty sure I don’t have what you think I have,” and he would say, “People who have schizophrenia never think they have it.”
I was put in a safe house where they monitor everything you do. I was on good behavior, so I was allowed to go to the grocery store to help shop for group taco night. We’d make dinner together and I was sitting at the table with these kids who were severely mentally ill, and I was looking at them thinking, “I don’t belong here.” I would question myself, “Am I hearing voices?” Then I’d just forget because I was too zonked out on tranquilizers.
I remember being in a room with my parents and that psychiatrist. He asked about my goals and I told him I wanted to be a pro snowboarder. He said, “You need to be more realistic with your expectations. If you can work a normal job and be off disability one day, consider yourself a success story.”
Eventually I started taking myself off some of the medication. I’d see if the withdrawal was manageable. I did it slowly, without telling anyone. I came back to life. I started boarding again. SilverStar got some boxes in the park and I started hitting those. Jibbing seemed easy. The boxes were way wider than the balance beam was in gymnastics.
This is when you found your path?
I really started to get fired up again. I was doing rail contests, the [Volcom] Peanut Butter [and] Rail Jams. I ended up getting an invite to girl’s [Ms.] Superpark from [Snowboarder Magazine Creative Director] Pat Bridges.
Just from doing those events?
I was driving to [Canada Olympic Park] in my mom’s car for a contest and I picked Bridges up hitchhiking. I didn’t know who he was, but he was doing a story on hitchhiking. We went to COP and I ended up riding with him. I was tossing hand plants up on the wall ride and probably eating shit, but it made an impression. Then I won the Peanut Butter finals in California a couple of years later and I wrote to him: “Hey Pat, I heard about Superpark, do you think I could get in?” He wrote back: “Superpark isn’t a rail jam, but I guess you can come.” To this day, we still laugh about it.
I was doing a slopestyle contest right before Superpark and I was desperate to win some prize money for my trip to California. I crashed really bad and caved in my ribs, which cut my liver open. It wasn’t a good scene. I was in the ICU for two weeks. I must have been 22 years old and I thought I had just missed my last chance to go to the States, to have my big shot at Superpark, to finally get noticed.
Most people don’t make it if they’re already in their 20s…
I’d been told nobody makes it when they are over 20. I got out of the hospital and they said, “Don’t snowboard because your liver has a weak spot; you should be careful even walking down stairs.” I moved to Whistler and figured I could train by skating. I moved into a closet for $500 a month and met Dave Rouleau at the first King of the Bowl skate contest. I didn’t stick to my staying-on-the-ground promise. I was hucking meat out of the bowl, doing fly-outs. Dave was like, “Oh, you’re kind of crazy. Want to film for Gnar-Core?” I couldn’t afford a season pass and I worked at the recycling center, which was dope.
That’s how I met Ben Bilocq, who I live with to this day—[Laurent-Nicolas Paquin] also worked there. I was looking for street spots around Whistler. Then my roommate, Emily—she lived in a room above my closet—had a Canada West pass for ski racing. She would go get her day ticket in the morning, get on the gondola, and I’d wait on the road. She’d drop her glove out with this pass in it and I’d get on then drop the glove to my third friend. We’d go up and film each other.
Then Dave got you on the Gnar-Core program?
I tried to shoot on every street spot I could find around Whistler and I went on a few trips with dudes like Beau Bishop and Chris Rasman. At the time I was so pissed off. I felt like I had these important years stolen from my life and I probably wasn’t going to make it as a pro snowboarder because of it. So by the time I came to Whistler, I was in full-on don’t-give-a-fuck mode. If I was going to go down, I’d make sure I went down swinging. It might not have been the best approach, but it was an approach.
Did you even have a sponsor then?
I was getting boards from Rome. I hit the team manager up a bunch of times with my big, lofty, “here are all my dreams and how I’m going to make them happen” email. I never heard back. Then he came to Whistler and his truck broke down. I was living in a room with four other people, maybe 20 in the house including a couple dudes who rode for Rome. The [team manager] came to stay there. We had a setup in the yard and he was filming the guys. He’d put his camera down when I would drop in, wouldn’t even film me. Finally, he needed a ride into town because his truck was still broken. I drove him there. I thought this was my chance and said, “I see what Marie-France Roy is doing. She’s my hero. I’m going to be like that. I’m going to do everything I can to change everything for girls.” And he was like, “Yeah, there isn’t really anyone besides [Marie] that’s going to do it. Don’t bother.”
He stopped sending me boards shortly after. I was 24 and it looked like the end of the road. I decided to finish off that winter then go back to school. Shortly afterward I happened to tag along with a friend of mine who was picking up some bindings from a distributor in Vancouver. When we walked in, Mikey Scott was sitting there on a computer. He recognized me from SilverStar because he grew up riding there. He said, “We are distributing for this new company. Would you be down to ride a board? It’s called Capita.” I was like, “I will take this snowboard and I will change the world with it!” He’s like, “You can just ride it in the park. That’ll be good enough.” I went straight home, built a quarterpipe in my backyard and got to work with a photographer. I sent [Mikey] photos of me riding the board later that week. As spring turned to summer, I was working construction so I was only able to ride one or two days a week. When I’d get up on the [Blackcomb] glacier I would go crazy, hiking everything because waiting in line for the T-bar was taking too long.
Mikey showed up with a photographer, Brian Cassie, and we got like 10 really good photos in one day. Then Blue [Montgomery, founder of Capita] came to Whistler. I was lighting firecrackers and throwing them at his feet, stealing shit from the cafeteria. He asked me if he could get me anything at lunch and I was like, “I’m good,” and pulled three beers out of my sleeve at the table. My mentality was like, “I’m never going to make it anyway, might as well scare some people along the way.”
On his way back down to the airport, Blue dropped me off in Squamish, and he happened to be with Cody Dresser, the main guy at Monster. And his best friend was Bobby Meeks who was the main guy at Nike. On our way down I pulled out my iPod touch and showed them all the photos I had gotten that year. I had a lot of photos because whenever a photographer would point their camera at me, I would go nuts and try to shoot until I couldn’t walk anymore because I never knew when I’d get a chance to shoot again. Eventually Blue sat me down for a talk:
“So, what are your goals?”
“Film a video part! I want to be like Marie-France!”
He said, “Well, have you thought about going the contest route?”
At the time there weren’t many women filming street video parts. Contests seemed more realistic. I wrote him an essay on how badly I wanted the opportunity to film, how if he helped me, I would not slack for a minute. I got an email from [Jesse] Burtner that fall. I was still working construction. He asked me to film for Think Thank and I lost my shit. It was my dream. I had this PVC pipe hidden in the bushes at the ice rink. I’d go there after work and set it up, practicing tricks over and over under the streetlamp. I was so prepared by the time I went to [Anchorage] Alaska that I filmed most of my breakout part [in 2010’s Right Brain Left Brain] during that two-week trip.
People finally believed in you.
I watched my part before it came out on my way down to Hood that summer. I cried in my car after thinking, “It’s so boring, no one is going to give a shit.” I was so used to hearing the way that the guys would talk about girl snowboarders that I couldn’t even see what was in front of me. I was 25. Who goes pro when they’re 25?
The movie premiered at Mt. Hood and when it came on the screen, I realized that the opening part was mine. Until that moment I was gearing up for embarrassment. Somehow, I had slipped through the cracks and, for once, in the right direction. Then the [TransWorld] awards came, and I didn’t think it could be real. For several years after that I’d be nominated for awards every year and win at least one, two, sometimes all three. Still I was like, “There’s been a mistake; I’m just not going to say anything and take these home with me.” I didn’t let myself enjoy a minute of it.
Here we are today and I’m just starting to try to enjoy that success. I figured it would all be taken away as fast as it had been given to me. I even lied about my age for the first few years because I was scared people would realize they had made a mistake by signing me. When I’d land tricks, I’d think I had just gotten lucky. Up until a few years ago, I didn’t realize that I landed those tricks because I could. I had always thought it was just a fluke.
What did it take to make that shift?
Mostly it came from starting to help the other girls. In the beginning, every time the camera turned on and I was standing on the drop-in ramp, I wanted to sink into the snow and disappear. It was hard to believe in myself since nobody else did. I could see that same look on their face when [other women] were standing up there: the self-doubt. I heard myself saying to them, “I’ve seen you land stuff before. You can do it! What makes you think you can’t do it?”
Long before The Uninvited became a thing, I was doing the underground Uninvited—it just didn’t have a name or structure. When I got my second free board, my first one went to a girl who needed one. When I got my travel budget, I would invite girls who didn’t have one to stay in my hotel room, take a seat in my rental car, or use my filmer to get some shots. I’d use my [airline] points to fly girls out to come film with me. I really felt like I didn’t deserve all that success. All that money I was making, I tried to give it away. I’d buy everyone dinner, buy the diggers at Hood $1,000 of alcohol and then bake them a cake. But when I saw the girls losing faith in themselves and I was telling them, “You are landing stuff because you can, and you are here because you deserve it,” that’s when I was like, “Oh, maybe I am too.”
By then, I was so messed up physically from never taking a break. I had a couple of surgeries where the surgeons were like, “It looks like you got in a car accident. I’m going to speak about your case at our next conference.” I’d had a lot of torn ligaments, too many concussions, a lacerated liver, broken ribs, bruised vertebrae, sprained everything, two broken arms at once along with a blown knee… I kept riding through all those injuries. I would never stop. I think the most I ever took off was six weeks.
I thought that if I stopped, I would lose any progress I had made, that the guys would continue to just laugh at us. I felt like people were finally starting to listen. I thought if I let off the gas for a second, they’d be like, “See? Girls don’t know how to be hard workers.” I thought I needed a hundred shots to be in a movie because I’d seen women get cut out of film projects for all sorts of lame excuses. I wanted to make sure they had no option other than to include me.
It sounds like you got conditioned to hardly believe in yourself and as a result had so much to prove…
I didn’t have a victim mentality, but I had a sense that everything I had earned was going to be taken away if I didn’t bleed for it every single day. After working construction, I had a sense of what my life was going to be like if I didn’t make it. That gave me another kind of work ethic. You have to starve to know what hunger is. That knowledge is what drove me for so long. You also realize how to treat other people when you’ve been treated badly yourself. It’s like, “How’s this person doing? Are they bummed? Am I making them feel important? Am I doing the right thing with all this shit that I’ve been given?”
Fuck yeah [laughter]. I can definitely sleep at night. I really try to treat people the way I wish I would have been treated.
You’ve been talking about all these experiences where people kind of brushed you off. How do we change that, at least in snowboarding?
It’s changing right now. They can only hold us back for so long. There have been little cracks that people have snuck through, like Women’s Big Air at the Olympics [in 2018]. They ran the Slopestyle event in the worst possible conditions, so the girls just ate shit and were barely able to land their most basic tricks. But for Big Air, the conditions were different, and everyone who watched it was sitting there with their mouths hanging open. They couldn’t believe how high the level of riding actually was, especially after watching the slopestyle disaster. All this talent was being bred underneath the surface and there was finally a crack for it to leak out of. And it was more of an eruption.
Really, the way to make change is through actions, not words, not preaching. If someone was filming on a quarterpipe and they wouldn’t point their camera at me, I would huck a double backflip and land almost on top of them and be like, “Yo, you see me now?”
We just need a chance to show them. That’s what The Uninvited is for. After the first movie came out, Maria [Thomsen] got asked to film for X Games Real Snow [in 2019] against the guys, for the first time in history. She placed second in fan favorite. Then Kennedi [Deck] gets signed to K2 and Vans and she’s filming for the Vans video. These are the girls who had ender and opener, and the results were immediate. They just needed someone to give them a chance to be seen.
I started The Uninvited after I was cut out of a high-profile project [in 2016]. I had planned to finally take a season off and get some surgeries that were long overdue. But they asked me to film for this movie, so I skipped the surgeries and busted my ass all winter to film what I thought was one of my best parts ever. My name was on the billing for the movie, all the marketing and ads and stuff. I didn’t find out I wasn’t even in it until it premiered in Vancouver. I didn’t even know there was an event there until my friends called me from the venue saying, “We came here to see your part. Why aren’t you in it?” I wasn’t invited to the premiere. I wanted to quit snowboarding after that. I had bled for that part. I had caused permanent damage to my body for it, and it felt like it was for nothing. Finally I was like, “Give me the footage if you’re not going to use it.” I put it out on my own Vimeo channel and it still won Video Part of the Year.
It was a big realization. If this was still happening to me at that level, where was the hope for the girls still on their way up? About a week after that happened, I ran into Darrah [Reid-McLean] and Maria [Thomsen] at the Full Moon premiere in Whistler and asked them if they would film for a project if I made one. I told them it was gonna be called The Uninvited because we’re never invited. I didn’t have to explain the name because they already knew. There were tons of chicks in the past that nobody ever heard about who were sick street riders, but they quit because they knew there was no hope for them—they didn’t see anyone like them having any success no matter how good they were. They were like, “Why would I do this? It hurts. It costs me money. It makes it so I can’t work full time in the winter and I’m fucking up at school.” In the end they just needed a chance to show what they could do.
Do you feel like that’s your role in snowboarding right now, just giving opportunities? Or do you still have a drive to step up your own riding at this point?
In 2015 I filmed what I thought was my most well rounded part ever, for the Snowboarder movie [SFD]. It was everything everyone expected: a bigger jump than the year before, a bigger cab 5, a bigger gap to this, better slams, more tricks, new tricks. But I never got much of a reaction. I was like, “I did all that and nobody gave a shit?” Something switched in my head. I thought, “There’s nothing that I can do that is going to surprise people anymore, and it’s only really going to cost me physically and mentally.” I know that I can still do crazy shit if I wanted to, but it’s not going to make as much of an impact as helping other people do surprising things and show their full potential.
Do I feel driven to still push myself? After being beat down for so long it doesn’t seem worth it. I wanna push myself in other ways besides just jumping off of dumb shit. Sometimes I wonder, “Is there even a place for someone like me to get paid to be a pro snowboarder if I’m not still bleeding for it daily?” But I need to stop thinking like that. I think I’ve earned my place here. I’ve bled enough.
There are dudes that do it. They might not be the most progressive riders anymore, but they’re still on the pro team, showing younger riders the spots, how to film and operate in the streets or the backcountry. Some transition to marketing roles, but there are plenty of pro riders even into their late 40s, including a few women.
Of course, I want to do this as long as I can. I always want to make more of an impact than just the one I’m paid to make. However I can do that, whether it’s filmmaking or helping people tell their story, that’s what I want to do. I never enjoyed snowboarding before—I enjoyed knowing that I landed a trick, knowing that I put a part together. But I never let myself think, “This is fun.” You might say, “That’s such a sellout mentality.” But it came out of necessity because I didn’t have time to have fun, just like I didn’t have time to casually wait in the T-bar lineup on the glacier all summer when I was trying to make it. I had two days a week to go out and give ’er. Now I’m like, “Maybe I deserve to have some fun and enjoy snowboarding.”
I’d agree with that.
I’d like to explore. I really like snowmobiling. In the past, I’d tell my sponsors, “I’m filming rails in the [BC] Interior,” and I’d sled on the good days without telling them, maybe get a shot on a step-down and then send it at the end of the year, as if it just happened somehow along the way.
I do feel like I’m making more of an impact with what I’m doing now than filming a crazy video part that’s completely self-centered, that people watch once and forget about. I think the companies that I ride for can also benefit more off what I’m doing now than what I was doing before. I always wanted to be the person to do something that no one else would do, to do the work that no one else would be willing to put in, or to do something nuts like use my own savings to help other people out so they can take my job—to do the right thing at any cost. I just want to make waves, add something positive to the mix. And I think losing Mark was a wake-up call: This is going to end at some point. Not just snowboarding, but your life will end—everyone’s lives will. And what are you doing with it?
I spent so much time thinking about the last moments that he was alive, wondering what he was thinking about. Wondering what I will be thinking about when my time comes. I want to know that I did the right things, the best that I could, and that I did something useful with my time here, something useful to help others. Because if you only help yourself throughout your life, that’ll be a pretty lonely thing to think about right before you die.
This feature was first published in The Snowboarder’s Journal Issue 18.4.