Jess Kimura on Learning to Drown

February 10, 2022

One of the most influential action sports athletes in the world, Jess Kimura, was at the top of her game when tragedy struck. As everything came crashing down, grief led her down a path she could have never imagined.



The North Face: What plans do you have for this upcoming season?


Jess Kimura: I’ve been working on some really big projects the past couple years that haven’t left me much time for myself, so I would love to focus on enjoying the ride a bit more. I have a few trips and things on the go and a big event in May, but we’ve been getting so much snow at home, I’m mostly excited to be out in the mountains every day, shredding and filming.


TNF: When did you know you were ready to tell this story? 


Jess: Probably when I saw it for the first time. Haha. I kinda freaked out and was like “oh no, what have I done? I’m not ready to be this vulnerable.” But over time I have come to see the greater purpose of it outweighs my own fears about being so transparent.


TNF: How was your first conversation with (Director) Ben Knight? 


Jess: Well, the original concept was just to do a short video on grief versus fear and how overcoming one can help us overcome the other. I think it was a combination of destiny and luck that Ben ended up with this project on his lap. He just operates on a different frequency. He feels things on a different level and is able to turn that into these visual masterpieces. He’s an actual genius motivated by passion and integrity. I admire him a lot.


Director Ben Knight embraces Jess at an emotional time during production.
Director Ben Knight embraces Jess at an emotional time during production.


TNF: How did the story evolve over time?


Jess: We filmed one interview in Mexico, which was the second time I ever met him. I kinda blacked out and forgot what I had said, but I knew we talked for a few hours with the camera rolling. After spending four days together on that shoot, we went home and heasked me if I had any old snowboarding or crash footage. I sent him a few hard drives full, not really knowing what he would want to use. When I saw the first cut a few months later, I was expecting it to be 10 minutes max, and just about learning to overcome my fear of water while navigating grief. It turned out to be much more than any of us had expected.


Jess Kimura drops a huge cornice in the backcountry and throws a styled-out tailgrab.
Jess Kimura drops a huge cornice in the backcountry.


TNF: As a professional snowboarder, what does surfing mean to you? 


Jess: Surfing brings me joy on a level I can’t really explain. I’m still pretty embarrassing out there but I don’t care, I just love it so much. I haven’t gotten to do it nearly enough though... I only know it in the context of having a really messed up shoulder. Since the beginning, it would be dislocating all the time in the water and it was always at the forefront of my mind... that fear and definitely the pain. I kept putting off getting it fixed because I knew it was a super long recovery and I had finally found something that brought me joy again. I worried that if it was taken away, Iwould sink back down and have nothing left to help me cope.


TNF: What made you finally decide to get surgery?


Jess: I realized that I can’t just rely on something external to bring me happiness; that I didn’t have any healthy coping tools. I was just so used to either burying my emotions or bulldozing through rough timesor using physical activity to distract myself from how I was really feeling. I had major surgery to fix it last May because I didn’t want to be in this state of pain and instability all the time. 


TNF: How did you cope during the recovery?


Jess: It’s very parallel to what I learned through losing Mark and the process of grief over the years. Whatever we bury will come back to haunt us. At some point we need to face our problems head on. I’ve been using this recovery time to put more tools in my bag as far as healthy coping mechanisms (cognitive behavioral therapy, talk therapy, etc.) It’s not easy for me but it’s necessary if I don’t want to be caught in this unhealthy cycle forever. I’m really excited to experience surfing without that shoulder pain and instability hanging over my head.


Jess and Mark’s mom, Fran, embrace while smiling and looking skyward.
Jess and Mark’s mom, Fran, embrace during production.


TNF: Tell us more about your relationship with Mark’s mom Fran?


Jess: I feel so lucky to have Fran in my life. She is such a strong, badass woman and she grew up in a time where people weren’t as accepting as they are today. I really admire her tenacity, athleticism and drive to take the road less traveled. She understands me on a deep level and she keeps me connected to Mark.


TNF: Are there any parts of the film you can’t watch? 


Jess: There were for sure at first but it’s gotten easier with time. If I’m doing a premiere I will usually leave during certain parts. 


TNF: In the film you say that you aspired to be the person you needed when you were younger. Do you feel like you’ve accomplished that? 


Jess: Yes absolutely. Through the Uninvited films of course, but mostly through things that have gone on behind the scenes. Standing up for the right thing even when it’s harmful to my own career. Standing up for those who don’t have a voice yet. I always operate in the context of, “What do I wish someone would have done for me in this situation?” I’m not trying to be somehero or anything. I just always feel like it’s most important to do the right thing, even when no one is watching. That’s when it counts.


TNF: Emotions are complex. What is one unexpected emotion you’ve felt in this journey?


Jess: Probably shame, guilt, fear, insecurity. I never dreamed it would have this kind of success. It was just something I wanted to do to help other people going through similar struggles. I never thought it would get to this level and I never intended it to be a film about my life or career. I’ve felt fear that I’ve somehow commodified or objectified something so personal, and insecurity that my words or intentions will be taken the wrong way. I’ve felt guilty that it draws attention to my achievements outside of my relationship withMark. And the fact that it’s up for awards and stuff, of course I’m grateful, but there’s a part of me that feels weird accepting those. But in my deepest heart, I know why I did it, Fran knows, and most importantly Mark knows. Hearing other people’s stories is what helped me get through my darkest times. If this film can do this for one other person, it was worth it.


TNF: Through pain, we find another version of ourselves. Who are you now?


Jess: Someone who can’t wait to go surfing again!