LAST SPRING, I STOOD ON THE TOP DECK OF THE UNINVITED INVITATIONAL. It was the first day of the event and a few dozen of the best street riders in snowboarding milled about, inspecting the set up, reunioning, and easing the jitters before everything began. At 10am, Jess Kimura stepped on top of a storage container that made up half of a sporty roof-to-rail transfer and addressed the assembled crowd.
The Invitational is the next evolution of The Uninvited videos; a new response to what the riders need now for support. Jess and good friend Sharalee Hazen willed the event into existence through relentless determination—par for the course for how Jess approaches everything she throws herself into. Jess has always been a trailblazer, from her opening segment debut with Think Thank and the litany of awards and accolades she has received for her riding, to her efforts adding metaphorical jet fuel to the careers of countless other snowboarders through opportunities and resources. But you’d be hard-pressed to hear her admit how much she’s done and how much she means to snowboarding because she’s humble, often hard on herself, and more focused on what she can do next, how she can contribute more, and where she can grow—than what she has done.
That day last spring, after countless months preparing, The Uninvited Invitational was finally happening. Jess finished welcoming everyone to the event and explaining what would go down. Excitement was really, really high. And then, all of a sudden, I watched as the group of riders packed in tightly in front of the storage container, mittened hands reaching into the sky, beckoning Jess to jump into the crowd. Jess paused and laughed, perhaps reluctant, but there for the crew. She turned around and fell backwards into the open arms, buoyed by the very folks she is so dedicated to raising up. It was one of the coolest things to witness: 60 snowboarders beckoning for their friend to blindly fall and they would catch her. There’s plenty of metaphors there, but it distills down to one airtight fact: how very much Jess Kimura means to us all. — Mary T. Walsh
How’s it going and where are you?
It’s going good. I’m in Mexico with my mom. We are hanging out with Mark’s mom, too. It’s a Mom fest.
Do you go down there every summer now?
I try to go down a few times a year, but especially in the fall to get a boost of sunshine before that seasonal depression sets in. I live in a place where it’s super dark and rainy in the fall.
It’s kind of the balance to snowboarding the rest of the year?
Well, it used to be that snowboard season would end and I could bounce with my truck and camper and not check my email for two months. But that’s not what being a pro snowboarder is anymore. I end up spending so much time down here on my computer and in Zoom meetings. But if I want to keep creating my own path and projects, I need to put the work in. I still get to surf and look at palm trees.
I get that. What did it mean to be a pro snowboarder when you were starting out?
Our seasons were always focused around filming a video part. A brand or production company would take care of all the planning; you just had to show up on the trips and do crazy tricks. As long as you were one of the top- level riders, it was just expected that there would be at least one project for you to be a part of every winter. The season would end and you would go to Hood and take a few months to chill, skate, get surgery, whatever. Then there was the video premiere in the fall and the cycle would start again.
You were focused just on your riding.
Yeah, filming a video part and just trying to dream up crazier and crazier things to do.
Your first big part was the Right Brain Left Brain opener, right?
Yep, it was.
I remember watching that at Mt. Hood. The Think Thank premiere at summer camp was always such a big deal. I know exactly where I was standing in the High Cascade bowl when your part was playing. It felt like such a monumental moment.
That’s so cool you were there. I can remember where I was standing, too. Nobody had told me I was getting opening part.
What was going through your mind when your part came on the screen?
I was tripping out. I was like, Holy shit. And then, Is this even good enough? immediately after.
I’m sure it’s an understatement to say that there’s a lot of pressure to show the world everything that you’re capable of in a season in just 2-3 minutes.
Totally, and your whole value rides on that.
How was that pressure when you were starting out and how does it sit with you nowadays?
It was a lot of pressure. Mostly from myself because I thought, Pressure is on. We FINALLY have our foot in the door—you know what I meant by “we.” I was so scared to fuck it up because I felt like I had to do it for all of us. Before that, I was riding with the Peep Show girls. Those were such epic times. But it was just so hard for any of us to break through, and it was finally happening. I took it so seriously. I never let it be fun. I mean, it was fun to land tricks—for like a 15-second period and then you’re like, “Okay, what’s next?” Every bit of my life centered around making the most of every moment on snow and doing whatever I could to prevent anything from fucking up. Because it’s not in your hands. You can film all the best stuff ever and if the editor doesn’t like it or there are issues with the sponsors, or whatever it is, your footage gets cut. And then the people who are watching the film, who don’t know what happened behind the scenes, just think a girl had a chance to film a video part but couldn’t pull it off. So my idea was always to have like three video parts worth of footage.
IT FEELS KINDA REBELLIOUS TO GO ON SOCIAL MEDIA AND BE LIKE, “I’M A FUCKING INSECURE PUSSY” INSTEAD OF “I’M A RICH OVER-FILTERED TRAVEL BLOGGER WITH A DISCOUNT CODE.” – JESS KIMURA
How did you keep that going? That’s a lot.
Well, you just push yourself to death. Keep going anyway that you can. There was a sense of desperation in those years for sure.
That makes sense, unfortunately.
It’s crazy because I was just hitting override on everything—my body and mind were saying, What are you doing? Stop. But I would just push through. I used to think that was what strength was. But now, I think strength is being able to say no. I would change a lot of things if I could go back. I would take concussion stuff more seriously, because I’m still dealing with the fallout to this day, and probably will be for the rest of my life. There were filming trips where I was drinking a lot or getting super high just to stay in it because I didn’t even want to be there. I just hated that feeling of being on the drop in ramp and thinking, I don’t think I can do this. Eighty percent of what I did, I didn’t believe I could do at the time. And when I landed, I just thought, I got lucky there.
You didn’t even give yourself any credit.
No, I didn’t. And I realized that the first year that I was out filming The Uninvited—I say filming because I was literally the filmer—trying to talk the girls through battling their tricks. They’d be so devastated when they wouldn’t land, but it would be so clear in my mind that they could land. I looked back and saw myself. Like, Wait a minute, maybe I was capable of all those tricks, too. I wasn’t just getting lucky. But I still deal with that when I’m out filming to this day. I still freak out. I don’t think I can do this. In those moments, I regret getting myself in a position where I’m strapped in and the camera’s out and I might not be able to meet the expectation. But I think this is actually a pretty common thing in pro sports. Many of us are good because we don’t think we are. Haha.
Definitely. I think anyone who’s really good at something, whatever it is, there’s generally an inherent amount of self-criticalness, and often self-doubt, that they’re able to work through to make amazing things happen, you know?
Yeah, high-performance people can be the most self-critical. What I wanted to say earlier when you asked how I felt at that premiere, I was like, Fuck. Because even now, if I achieve something good and let myself acknowledge that, there’s a fear that whatever part of me I can credit that achievement to will give up and say, Well sweet, I did it. I’m good enough. I can stop trying so hard now.
Yeah. There’s no complacency.
I’m really trying to work on this. Being able to acknowledge my achievements without worrying that it will diminish my future potential. Eww, I don’t even like to say “my achievements.” Like I said, working on it.
When you made that Instagram post at Holy Bowly…
Oh yeah, last season.
…saying how challenging it was to get that photo. I think about that often because when individuals like yourself, that people really listen to, share the challenges behind things, it really normalizes having those doubts and being able to work through things. It makes a difference for people to see that.
Maybe if they didn’t make all the pros look untouchable and indestructible when I was a kid, I wouldn’t have expected that of myself. So I feel like I owe it to people to show the other side of things. Plus it feels kinda rebellious to go on social media and be like “I’M A FUCKING INSECURE PUSSY” instead of “I’m a rich over-filtered travel blogger with a discount code.”
Obviously, losing Mark made me take a good honest look at what I was doing with my life. I kind of got to a point after filming maybe five video parts in a row…through hell and high water, blown knees, brutal injuries, I won all the awards and then I was like, What is this for? I feel so empty. So I shifted my focus. How can I be the person that I feel like we need? How can I make the project that I think we need? How can I make the event that I wish there was? How can I speak to people in the way I wish someone would?
Was part of that making Learning to Drown? Was it the goal, to show people that you can have grief-filled, challenging things happen and survive, or was that just how the film evolved?
After Mark died, I wasn’t doing well. I was down in Mexico, trying to learn how to surf and confront my fear of water. And I realized the only time I didn’t feel like I was dying was when I was out there, actually almost dying. Surfing and the ocean was so far outside my comfort zone that I had no choice but to be in the present moment. It was so healing for me, when I came to this realization, and I thought maybe talking about that could help someone else who was struggling. Because that whole time, I was so desperate to hear stories of people who had gone through the hell of losing someone and come out the other side.
I was living on the beach in my camper and I told my friend [Mark] Dangler about the idea: maybe a 5-10 minute YouTube video on the power of working through grief or difficult situations by physically forcing yourself out of your comfort zone. He came down to Mexico to hang out and filmed me eating shit surfing and a couple of short interviews with me and Fran. That was all it was supposed to be. It was never about my career, my history, my anything. Or even the whole story with Mark [Dickson].
I had just started riding for The North Face, and I showed them the video Dangler had put together. They wanted to make it into something bigger. They hired this incredible production company. They came down for five days, shot some surfing stuff and one long interview, and I didn’t hear anything for a while after that—except they would hit me up asking me if I had any bail footage or old snowboard footy or whatever. I kept sending Ben Knight, the editor, these hard drives. And I was wondering during the interview why they were asking me about way more than surfing. I don’t think they knew either at the time; they were just trying to be thorough. But Ben took that interview and made a whole film with it. It was supposed to be this small, little thing. But he ended up digging deep into my personal journey and struggles, which none of us had anticipated.
How was it for you after the movie came out? Because typically you’re putting out videos that focus on your snowboarding and Learning to Drown was such a personal, vulnerable story.
When I first saw it, it fucked me up badly. First, to have the Mark thing ripped open in such a raw way, and second—and this what I didn’t expect—to witness the physical and mental trauma I had put myself through, snowboarding-wise. And to know it was just a snapshot. We actually had to take out a lot of the bails because it was too hard for people to watch. Hearing that feedback and knowing…
That’s your life.
Yeah. And I never acknowledged it while it was happening. Same with losing Mark. I was just trying to survive and get as far away from my reality as I could. It was crazy to have to face it all in one place. The whole thing was really heavy. There were discussions about not releasing the film. But at some point I was like, You have an opportunity to do something you wish someone else would do and you are grateful for other people who have done it and it helped you. So just do it. And so it went out into the world. It was pretty scary.
At what point did you feel like you could continue to move forward?
The film was released online in January 2022 and that May I got a really bad concussion at Hood. I was fucked up for a long time. I had to change up my psychiatric medication again, which is always brutal. The concussion exacerbated everything. But still, I felt driven to do something new and meaningful.
Part of that was bringing The Uninvited to life as an event. How did that start brewing?
I always wanted to do more with The Uninvited. As my filmer and builder, Ben Bilocq is always a big part of conceptualizing every project I do. He said, “You need to create an experience that embodies the way people were feeling at your Uninvited premiere tour stops.” Because it was like, what’s another film going to do? We felt we had got to the place where we wanted to be—where the girls are included in most of the major film projects. So, what is the next thing? I talk to them almost every single day and hear what they’re going through. It’s always that rent’s coming up, their credit cards are maxed, and they got this opportunity that they can’t afford to go to. So what do they need? They need money now. How can I give them money now? An event where they can win a shit-ton of it. And as luck would have it, I had just met Haze.
Sharalee Hazen, your co-creator of the event.
Right away we were like, “We should create something big together.” We complement each other’s strengths and offset each other’s weaknesses so well. And we put it together and became this force. She’s so on board with all the ideals that The Uninvited has been about. So we hatched this plan and decided to go after it, but then at the same time—we were late on the draw. I had that concussion and all the side effects of the new medication. I couldn’t look at my computer screen without getting sick for months. She was really patient to not push me, because I couldn’t use my brain or my eyes or my computer or my phone, but I felt this underlying current of stress and guilt. Get better so you can figure this out! Haze is ready to rock. The clock is ticking! We’re at the end of July! We’re at the end of August! We’re at the end of September! Finally, we just pushed through and made a pitch deck. We didn’t have a venue yet, we didn’t have any sponsorship money, we didn’t have anything. And it was way too late. That’s all anyone said. But Haze was like, “It’s all we have and it’s all we can do.” I hated that it wasn’t in time. It’s so important to me to be prepared and not give anyone a reason to say no—but it was more important to just try to make it happen. So we did and we got support. It was pretty stressful behind the scenes. Like I had already said, “The prize money is going to be $50,000. I’m sticking to that.” And in the end, we begged, borrowed, stole, and scratched everything we could, but it had to be $40,000.
It’s hard to not beat yourself up in those situations, but from the outside, everyone is ecstatic about the prize money. What was the reception from the riders?
When we did the announcement and sent out the invites, I was braced for rejection. I think there was some stuff with the first Uninvited film that felt like maybe some people didn’t truly understand what it was. Is this a girls’ project? Is this a B project? Because my intentions were so good going into it, it really hurt to hear people talk shit. So I didn’t know if the girls were going to be like, “This is lame,” and nobody was going to show up. And of course, they’re snowboarders. Nobody replies to emails or fills out the fucking RSVP form. But every time we’d see a new name pop up as confirmed, we’d be like, “Oh, thank god.”
I think that goes back to being so self-critical when pushing toward something you believe in so deeply.
Yeah, absolutely. I also felt really bad that it was going to cost the girls money to go. My original dream was to raise enough money that we could have a huge prize purse and I’d be able to pay for everyone’s travel. Because it shouldn’t cost them a bunch of money just to have an opportunity. I remember what it was like having such a tiny travel budget that I had worked multiple jobs all summer for, maxing out my credit cards and getting fired for missing shifts at work. But in the end, it seemed like everyone was stoked. It was very cool to have free food for the riders at the welcome dinner. Everyone was like, “Really? I can have some?” I was holding two charcuterie boards thinking, THIS IS THE GREATEST MOMENT OF MY LIFE! I don’t even know what the fuck that is. I’ve never ordered one before in my life. But we had stacks of them.
IT WASN’T JUST ABOUT GIRLS DOING CRAZY TRICKS IN A CONTEST, IT WAS MORE ABOUT WHAT CAN WE DO TO PUSH EVERYONE FORWARD COLLECTIVELY. – JESS KIMURA
That feeling of being treated to something like that never gets old.
I was so hyper-focused on those things. When people said, “You don’t need to have that much prize money.” Yes, we do! Or “Quit stressing about the swag bags.” I was like, They need to be overflowing with abundance. I just wanted the whole experience to be special because I had been to so many things where the girls were relegated to the back and I just…I just wanted them to feel VIP.
That creates a sense of ownership that this is really for them. This was clear in the set up, too.
Yeah. The stairset, the goodie bags, the charcuterie boards—I did not want to compromise on those things. The contest kids get to train on airbags and I thought, Why can’t we make a stairset using the same concept? Originally, I hoped someone would back 270 that rail. And if they did it there, where they know that there is two inches of foam on the stairs and that little plastic plexi sheet—they can build their confidence. Then maybe this winter, someone will be able to do it at a real street spot. Or maybe someone’s going to learn how to go backwards through a kink rail. Whatever it is. So it wasn’t just about girls doing crazy tricks in a contest, it was more about what we can do to push everyone forward collectively, you know?
Did you get to slow down for a moment during the event, when you could say, “We did it. We accomplished this big thing”?
Not really, it was hell. I mean, don’t quote me on that. But I’ve never done anything more stressful and all-consuming than this.
I think that’s a pretty normal—and honest—feeling when you’re running an event.
The only moment where the spinning stopped was writing out the checks after the judges’ decision, before the awards ceremony. That was the most emotional thing ever. Everyone on our team was crying. That moment with Haze, being like, The results are in. We’re about to give away some money and put an exclamation mark on everything we’ve been working for. That was the most powerful moment. I don’t know if that is weird?
That sounds cathartic, honestly. An impactful moment of the event, as a viewer, was seeing Taylor handplant the dumpster in the midst of dealing with new MS symptoms. That was this very clear example of the power that has been created by The Uninvited.
I’ve been with Taylor while she filmed most of her video parts and I’ve never seen her do something that gnarly. It was perfect. And I’m sure that there’s so much behind that at the time—wondering if this was her last chance to snowboard at that level and stomp it in front of everyone. That was incredible. Then there was watching Lolo [Derminio] when she did the roof-rail transfer. I really pushed for that feature and everyone was like, “Are you trying to hurt them? No one’s gonna hit that.” And I said, “Someone will hit it.” At first no one hit it and that was fine.
But then Lolo hit it and I…I just started crying. I was trying to watch the contest. First when Taylor landed her handplant, I freaked out so bad smashing my clipboard that I snapped it clean in half. I had two flapping pieces of a clipboard that I was trying to push together and write. Then when Lolo did the transfer, I was just crying onto my broken clipboard. This is it. I fucking told you guys! They can do it! They can do anything. And what else could they have done before? Where people didn’t even give them the category. They didn’t give them the feature. They didn’t give them the filming opportunity. How long ago could this have happened? I fucking told you! That was that moment. Not of me being right, but being like, This is it. Wow! And they could’ve done it this whole time. I was saying this ten years ago. We can do it. Just let us try.
That means so much and to have it on display in that way is so huge.
It was really cool to see, but I want to mention that it’s tough for some people to always be put in a category when they don’t necessarily feel they’re in that category. We use the term “all girls” or “women’s” but really, this was something for people who haven’t had these kinds of opportunities or who haven’t been made a priority. This is something that I’m trying to work out, too. Some people might say, “You’re making it worse by splitting it up more.” I’m not trying to split it up more. The reality is it’s already split. I’m just trying to push the ones who got left behind to the front of the pack.
Considering all of the time and work spent on the movies, on the event—how do you navigate finding time for just your own riding, career, and fulfillment?
Yeah, that’s really tough. I told myself this year that it was going to be difficult—it was a proof-of-concept year. I went to Japan in January but other than that, I barely snowboarded. I think I went out sledding like three times total and normally I try to get out three times a week, at least. I’m stressed going into this winter, for sure, about how I’m going to find the balance, because I will not compromise—the event has to be the sickest or it’s canceled. And in my mind, it can’t be canceled. So…
It has to be the sickest.
I’ll just have to find a way to say, “Look, I need help,” and stop feeling like I need to push myself overboard on everything. I don’t think that this event is going to go on forever. I want it to run its course. Maybe it’s another trilogy, like the movie, and then there’s something else next.
What do you want for your own snowboarding?
I never really let myself enjoy anything. I was so focused on maximizing this opportunity, there was no room for error. But I wasn’t happy and I didn’t feel fulfilled. So I want to enjoy riding, enjoy spending time with my lil’ snowboard community. I want to hone in on the things that I really love the most. Japan is really important to me. There’s something about it that just refills my soul when I go there. I want to rip backyard sessions with friends, do some street trips, take my snowmobile to new places, find things to jump off of in the backcountry.
And there are so many things that I know I could do, but if I keep hitting my head, I’m not going to be able to do anything, for anyone. So, I have to be careful with that, as much as I can. I have to say no to things I wish I could do. Like the World Quarters, for example. I wanted to be there so bad, but I can’t always trust myself in those situations to just sit and watch. And it sucks because it’s specifically transition features that I love riding the most. I’m getting a lot better, but I can be so impulsive. It’s not because I need to prove that I’m still good and not washed up. It’s because I just want to fly…again.
Wait, do you feel like people think you’re washed up?
No, I don’t think people really know what I am. It’s constantly evolving and progressing. And the sum of what I want to do, it hasn’t been done before, so I’m going to create my own label for it.
Okay good, because I was going to say—you’re definitely not washed up.
My passion is not to be the best snowboarder. I thought it was. But it’s not. My passion is to identify something that people don’t think is possible and go after it in full force, whether it’s filming gnarly video parts, making a movie with no budget, trying to launch careers for people, or putting on the biggest event that I’ve ever been to. I’m always asking myself, What else can I do? And not everybody gets it. They want everything to fit in a neat little box. But they don’t even know what I have coming. Neither do I, really. But I do know that I’ll never stop fighting to make impossible shit happen, and in a way that, in the end, people are going to look back at and say, “Oh shit, that actually worked.”