The Unsinkable Jess Kimura
Pro snowboarder opens up about mental health in 'Learning to Drown' at 5Point Aspen show
What: 5Point Encore
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Friday, June 3, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $22
Tickets: Wheeler box office; aspenshowtix.com
Based on the evidence of her countless high-flying and death-defying snowboard video parts over the past decade-plus, you might conclude Jess Kimura is invincible.
But as the intimate and harrowing 40-minute documentary “Learning to Drown” makes clear, she has a mental and physical breaking point. The film, directed and edited with a sensitive hand by Ben Knight (“The Last Honey Hunter”), lets the British Columbia-based Kimura tell her story of how years of toughing out injuries and a sudden tragedy led to a mental health crisis and how confronting a fear of water has helped her find a way out.
“It’s like pushing your mind to push your body to do something crazy that is expressive of all of this stuff that I have inside of me,” she says of her extreme athletic pursuits in the film. “That is just my nature. I’ve tried to tone it down, but I get so fired up.”
“Learning to Drown” won the Hayden Kennedy Award and the audience-voted People’s Choice Award in April at the 5Point Adventure Film Festival in Carbondale. It is the centerpiece of an encore presentation Friday night at the Wheeler Opera House featuring 10 award winners and standouts from the festival for an Aspen audience. Kimura herself will be on hand for a Q&A.
Snowboarder Desiree Melancon, in the film, dubs Kimura “the 5-foot giant carrying the world on her shoulders” and based on the movie, the description is apt.
Kimura, now 37, tells her life story in the film, tracing her rebellious youth and how soon after she started riding in eighth grade she devoted her life to snowboarding, pushing its limits and carving out a place for women in its male-dominated world.
Her self-espoused “rebel mentality” was a natural fit for the sport’s enduring punk rock spirit.
Kimura’s determination to snowboard better and differently than anybody else made her one of the most creative street riders around, leading to her big break in 2010 in a lead video part for a Think Tank movie, leading to an extended run at the top of the sport with a string of street and backcountry videos, sponsorships and five straight Reader’s Choice Awards from Transworld Snowboarding and a spot on ESPN’s “50 Most Influential People in Action Sports” list.
“I went from being absolutely nobody to having to go up and give a speech,” Kimura said of her sudden stardom and awards.
She also sacrificed mightily.
In an unforgettable early sequence, the film depicts with unblinking coldness the brutality that Kimura felt compelled to endure to capture a trick on film. It shows her attempting to jump onto a long rail and slide down it along a story-high staircase. She falls again and again, she cries, she appears to be breaking bones and enduring head trauma, but she keeps going and keeps trying. Eventually, she nails it with an otherworldly grace in the few seconds worth of transcendent film we’d normally see in her video part.
In another sequence, we see her come off of a rail slide at an odd angle and slam into a tree beside a playground at full speed.
In 2012, Kimura met her match in Mark Dickson, an equally free-spirited adventurer, and the pair fell in love after a first date snowmobiling adventure in which he got pinned under his sled and Kimura saved his life. The partnership changed her life.
“I felt like, ‘Woah, everything is lining up,'” Kimura says in the film. “‘I have this really successful career. And then I found this guy, and we’re connected spiritually.’ I even thought, ‘This might be my last year as a pro snowboarder. I might want to switch it up a bit and have a family.'”
When Dickson was killed in a car accident in 2014, Kimura’s heartbreak and grief set off a cascade of depression and mental health crises.
“I would sink into this hole that was so dark,” she said.
As she explains, she’d already long struggled with depression and the brain trauma from her countless head injuries, while also going off and on painkillers for her string of surgeries and broken bones.
“I’ve always said that I can deal with any amount of pain — broken ribs, blown knees,” she recalls in the film. “I’d still be filming and not say anything about the extent. … When your nervous system is used to all those pain things firing all the time it fries you. And sometimes I feel fried.”
“Learning to Drown” follows Kimura on the other end of that harrowing experience — traveling in the camper van that Dickson left behind — in coastal Mexico with Dickson’s mother in Kimura’s early days attempting to surf and to overcome her fear of swimming.
“I want to feel as much as I can feel while I’m here,” she says.
With time, riding waves and falling in the water, she begins to heal. Eventually she starts talking about the tragedy and hitting bottom as a positive turning point for her life.
“It feels like the biggest gift,” she says in the film, “because it took me all the way to the darkness and showed me where the light really is.”
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