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BREAKING THROUGH

PART SIX

a six-part series profiling athletes reaching the next level in their sport.

Jess Kimura
Story by Ben Gavelda

Forty-some people encircle the fire. Embers rise and fade into the night below a dry canopy of Douglas firs. A woman’s soft and solemn voice cuts through the patter of talk and beer swilling.

Forty-some people encircle the fire. Embers rise and fade into the night below a dry canopy of Douglas firs. A woman’s soft and solemn voice cuts through the patter of talk and beer swilling.

There is a house in New Orleans They call the Rising Sun And it’s been the ruin of many a poor girl And God I know I'm one… While Jess’s teammates ride the slushy lanes of the glacier each day, she and I hold down the campsite on the shores of Timothy Lake. Jess is recovering from ankle surgery, so we spend the days fly-fishing from Fish Cat tubes, hiking, mountain biking, and relaxing in the forest. She’s driven down from Whistler in an old Ford single-cab long-bed truck with a recently remodeled Bigfoot camper bolted to it. Her plan is to continue down to Mexico, heal up at the beach, and surf out the rest of summer. In the calm after our fellow campers leave for the mountain, we trade stories. Jess is a snowboarding phenomenon. “We don’t sponsor Jess because she’s a woman and we never have. We sponsor her because she’s Jess. Women are inspired by her, guys are inspired by her,” says Capita founder Blue Montgomery. But it’s more than that. It’s in her attitude and approach, “the rawness and the realness and the drive and determination,” to use Blue’s words. She’s gritty and tough with all-black attire and a crude manner of speech at times. But her appearance is a front, for her soft and sincere voice, genuine kindness, and warm eyes cut through it all. She’s half Japanese and half Belgian and beautiful, jet-black hair, bold cheeks, and golden skin. She often gets mistaken for Native American, she says. She’s authentically herself and has a battered heart of gold. Her video segments and snowboarding accolades are stacked, but the deeper story lies in the barriers she’s bulldozed in her 33 years on this planet.

Photo by Ashley Barker

Jess was raised in Vernon, British Columbia, a small town in the south central part of the province. “I grew up playing a lot of sports. I just lived sports,” she recalls. “When I was a toddler I wanted to wear pink and play with dolls, but if I fell I never cried. I played rough, but I hadn’t discovered the whole world of dude stuff because I grew up with an older sister and a mom that was very mom-like.” She sought the outdoors with childhood friend Dave Vest, building forts and running wild in those younger years.

The mountains were part of family tradition too. “My mom was huge on skiing. Every year we would get a season pass to Silverstar and go to ski school every weekend.” Then all her friends switched over to snowboarding. “When I was 12 I tried it a few times and I sucked so bad I just thought it was stupid,” she remembers. “I had both a board and skis, and I’d try snowboarding in the morning but would get so frustrated because I couldn’t turn, then end up throwing it back in the locker and taking my skis out.” That passion all changed one day when she was 14. “We saw some kids had built a little jump by the parking lot, so we went and checked it out, but they said, ‘This is a backflip-only jump!’ So I said, ‘I can do a backflip!’ since I grew up doing gymnastics. But they said, ‘Yeah, right!’ So I rode straight into the jump, since I couldn’t turn, and did a backflip. I didn’t land it—I just tomahawked down the hill. But I thought, ‘Holy shit! You can jump and stuff!’”

Photo by Dominic Rawle
“I left there thinking I’m definitely not good enough to snowboard at a competitive level.”
REI

From then on snowboarding clicked and consumed Jess’s life. She got into competing in slopestyle and halfpipe, and when Silverstar got rid of its park she moved on to competing in boardercross. “I just thought I had no chance in freestyle snowboarding after the park was gone, so I got into boardercross and was eventually invited to Switzerland for my first World Cup. I know my parents had to take out a loan or something to send me.” On her first run Jess wrecked badly enough that she had to be medevacked off the mountain. “It was such an overall disappointment, I just said, ‘I quit, fuck this.’ That whole experience was so shitty. The coach was so harsh and wanted to make sure I felt like I was a kook. I was a real square peg in a round hole in that system. I left there thinking I’m definitely not good enough to snowboard at a competitive level.” Back home things got worse. She began feeling sick and going to the doctor frequently. It could have been coming of age, the mix of emotions we all feel when we exit our teens and slam into adulthood. Before she knew it, she found herself in a pool of mental-illness diagnoses and pharmaceuticals. “I remember going to the doctor and saying my stomach hurts, and he’d look at my arm and say, ‘I think you have rosacea. Let me write you a prescription for this cream.’ Then one day he said, ‘I think you have depression, so take these sample packs of these antidepressants.’”

In Whistler she worked masonry and lived out of a closet. She rode after work, setting up jibs and a video camera on a tripod to film herself. Life went on like this for a while.
Whistler
British Columbia
Jess, Desiree Melancon, and Marie Hucal in Quebec City. Photo by Ashley Barker
Jess Kimura // tail press. Photo by Ashley Barker

Then things really spiraled out of control. “I thought, ‘This is crazy,’” Jess says. “My parents just trusted the doctors and figured they were right.

Then the psychiatrist diagnosed me with schizophrenia and other things I didn’t feel I had, and put me on a barrage of medication. The pills just crippled me. I just turned into a robot. I gained so much weight, too. I told the doctor I wanted to be a pro snowboarder and he just laughed.”

The first three years of Jess’s 20s were dark ones. Things were a blur, and she’s blocked much of it out, although she remembers knowing, even then, that things weren’t right. She kept snowboarding and was soon attracted to urban riding and the endless opportunity that the constructed environment offered. She started competing in rail contests and doing really well. Then she took a tumble. “I was competing at Silverstar and I caught my edge on something and landed so hard on my stomach with my elbows under me that I lacerated my liver pretty bad. I was in intensive care for a while. The doctors said I couldn’t ever snowboard again because I had a weak spot in my liver and another fall like that could prove fatal.”

Kimura

Every life contains turning points, places where the paths of our various experiences converge and things either click or snap. Our rationale shifts; we gamble or we retreat. “I just said, ‘Fuck it, I’m moving to Whistler,’” she recalls. It was a do-or-die move, almost literally. Her friend had just moved there and she had a place to stay. She thought she’d just skateboard, keep it on the ground, ride tranny. Her liver healed up well and she felt she wasn’t in any imminent danger. So she kept snowboarding, this time for real. Trying to become a professional snowboarder in the age of surplus talent and limited support is daunting; attempting it at the age of 23 in Whistler was audacious.

It was in Whistler where she also found a new psychiatrist, who proved crucial in weaning her off the medications and aiding her mental health. She worked masonry and lived out of a closet, but things were looking up. She rode after work, setting up jibs and a video camera on a tripod to film herself. She jumped at any photo or video opportunity around Whistler. Life went on like this for a while. She stocked up footage, sharpened her skills, and began putting down tricks and style on par with the guys. In time she garnered some sponsorship and linked up with Capita Snowboards. Her footage eventually made it in front of Think Thank Productions’ Jesse Burtner. Burtner saw an edit of this girl pulling off switch front boardslides, half cab 5-0s, switch front lipslides to 270 out, and proper back lipslides—tricks no other female was doing at the time. “When he hit me up to film for the new movie I fucking lost it!” Jess remembers. This was the golden ticket.

With Capita Snowboards now backing her to film, she finally had support instead of a cold shoulder. “Jess’s determination was quite intense,” remembers Capita founder Blue Montgomery. “It was really fascinating listening to someone who could communicate so clearly and so directly what her passions were and what she wanted out of snowboarding. She had no reservation about what she wanted, where she wanted to go, and how she was going to get there. I think that very early on I could see her intention was clear—she wanted to be the best snowboarder in the world.”

Play Video

Jess mixed concrete in the mud and snow and rain until December 11, then caught a flight to Alaska the next day to film. Capita paid for the first trip as a trial. “I remember being so intense, like grabbing Blue by the shirt and looking into his soul from the phone, saying, ‘I will not let you down!’ I just needed that little opportunity. So when I went to Alaska I just went all out.”

Jess crushed it in that first video part for Think Thank’s Right Brain Left Brain in 2010. She earned the opening part by putting down an array of elite urban tricks, notably a backside tailslide down a big ledge in Alaska that rocked the snowboard world. That first video part propelled her into the professional realm. After its release, Jess was offered contracts by big names like Nike and Monster. “Blue says to this day that some people get success out of being at the right place at the right time or luck, but that I manifested it out of sheer, raw, steel determination,” she remembers. Jess went on to film video parts with Capita, Nike, Snowboarder magazine, and more.

Her laundry list of honors is long and includes three Women’s Video Part of the Year awards, plus two Women’s Rider of the Year and five Women’s Reader’s Choice awards from TransWorld SNOWboarding. She’s been in Snowboarder mag’s top three Women Riders of the Year and Women’s Video Part of the Year lists five out of six years—more than any other female. She made ESPN’s Top 50 Most Influential People in Action Sports and 50 Most Influential Women in Action Sport lists. She has an X Games silver medal from the Real Snow Women’s Video Contest. Capita gave Jess a pro model board in 2013, a rare prize even for pro riders. She made it to the top and continued to pour her heart and body into snowboarding. Excelling came with a beating, and Jess became known for taking tough falls and pushing through injuries season after season. But the snowboarding dream was real, and she held it in her hands.

Photo by Dominic Rawle

In 2012, amidst her successes, she met the love of her life, a Kootenay cowboy by the name of Mark Dickson. He taught her how to snowmobile, explore the backcountry, mountain bike, and fish. The two complemented each other, and Mark helped Jess understand when to push oneself when it comes to riding and when not to. They lived the Canadian mountain lifestyle between Whistler and Revelstoke.

Then the ceiling fell, again. Mark was struck and killed by a truck while riding his dirt bike on a forest road outside of Revelstoke. Jess had left the day before on a film trip. “It’s pretty fucked to see your future go,” Jess says, trembling. “Not that he was my only future, but we had big plans and dreams together. Mark was my partner in life and adventure and everything I did. Then one day I was suddenly by myself again.” The past two years have been particularly tough, and she underwent shoulder surgery followed by ankle surgery—skipping the last two seasons of riding and filming. “Snowboarding has always been my escape to get in the mountains and relieve my anger and frustration. Having that and Mark taken away from me recently has forced me to actually look at both instead of just running.”

But the recent downtime has let her aid the next generation of female riders. The past two seasons, Jess sought out some of the best up-and-coming female riders and offered them portions of her travel and sponsorship budget to get them out on filming trips. She’s producing a movie out of this project, aptly titled The Uninvited.

Photo by Ashley Barker
Jess does a gap to backside wallride in Whistler. Photo by Ashley Barker
“Riding has always been my escape to relieve my anger and frustration.”

“For me it’s not a competition. It shouldn’t be women against each other. It’s more like I need to leave this place, women’s snowboarding, better than I found it.”

Back at the campfire, she keeps singing as flames reflect in her emerald eyes and her ink-black hair blends into the dark. The folk-song covers continue to roll out over the crackle of flames and into the night sky. Knowing her story, you can sense the running in her voice. But there is optimism and clarity, too. There’s peace hidden in her song.

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Story / Ben Gavelda Design & Development / Austin Branham Lead Series Editor / Leslie Hittmeier Series Producer / McKell Favrot Back End Engineer / Andrew Wells Photos / Ashley Barker & Dominic Rawle Executive Producers / Drew Holt, Steve Jones & Todd Jones