Jess Kimura, born and raised in Vernon, is at the top of professional women's snowboarding, travelling the world for video shoots of her many stunts.
Former Vernon resident Jess Kimura is not only peaking in pro snowboarding, but has become a role model for other women trying to escape society's stereotypical expectations for them.
The 28-year-old athlete, who now calls Squamish home, was recently ranked
No. 30 in the X Games' and ESPN's 50 Most Influential People in Action Sports.
She swept the TransWorld Snowboarding awards last year, winning Women's Rider of the Year, Women's Video Part of the Year and Readers Choice.
She's been nominated again for those awards in the 14th annual TransWorld Riders Poll.
"Hopefully, this year, we get a repeat hat trick. That's never been done before - ever - by guys or girls," Kimura said during an in-depth interview this week from her home. "That would kick ass. If it doesn't happen, that's fine. I'm just going to kick more ass next year."
Not bad for an Okanagan girl who "just sucked" when she first tried snowboarding at Silver Star Mountain Resort east of Vernon.
She started skiing at the age three. By age 13, she wanted to try something more challenging.
"My friends all started snowboarding, but they were really slow. I really sucked at first; I couldn't turn toeside my entire first year. I was so bad at it that I skied half the time instead," Kimura said with a laugh.
She continued to board at Silver Star until she moved to Whistler in 2006.
"It was just fun," she said. "There was a lot of freedom in it, and I just liked it a whole lot."
The turning point was a bad backflip that ended with her landing on her head. Several snowboarders had built a jump by the Silver Star parking lot, and when she asked if she could try it, they told her: "It's only for backflips."
Kimura, who loved gymnastics, thought, "I can do a backflip," even though she had never tried it on a board.
"I still couldn't turn toeside, so I just pointed my board straight down to the jump, hucked a backflip onto my head and cartwheeled into the parking lot. I was like: 'Whoa, sweet!' It kinda went from there."
She started competing in half-pipe, slope-style and boarder cross almost immediately, winning the youth nationals in half-pipe at age 16.
"I was going to nationals for boarder cross every year," she said.
However, there was no formal snowboard organization at that time, so competitions were under the auspices of the Federation Internationale de Ski.
"The whole structure of the contest scene was, like, too rigid and weird," she said. "That didn't seem like snowboarding to me, so I quit doing all that and started just filming video parts.
"What I do right now for a living is basically film a stunt highlight reel every year. Everything goes toward this one video part. That's kind of what you're judged on and what you're paid for."
The key was lining up seven sponsors who pay her to wear their gear or use their products when she's doing her stunts. Nike just added her to its Nike Snowboarding Team, her biggest score to date.
"It's hard to explain," she said. "People are like: 'What do you do? You do the Olympics?' I'm like: 'No, I don't do the Olympics.' I guess I'm basically like a stunt person for video."
For example, Kimura will perform stunts for a video company planning a major feature, like a Warren Miller film.
"They will contact the companies that I ride for and contact my agent, and I will film with their crew all year," she said. "At the end, they take all of the best shots, edit it to music, it comes out on their DVD and they sell it. My paycheque comes from endorsement deals with my sponsors."
Those include Nike, Monster Energy Drinks, Capita snowboards, Union bindings, Electric goggles, Celtek gloves and Cool head wear.
"This turned out a lot bigger than I ever expected it to," she said. "I just really love snowboarding and wanted to - not even so much get paid to snowboard - but not to have to work all year so I could pay to snowboard. I just wanted my season pass paid for. Now it got way bigger than that, and it's pretty cool."
Kimura estimates she probably boards 150 days a year, including summer riding on the glacier at Mt. Hood, Ore., at Whistler, and in Argentina, Chile, Australia and New Zealand.
"Last year, we went to Japan. This year, we're going to Japan, Finland and who knows where else."
Two years ago, she worked in masonry.
"I would just bust my ass all summer working in construction to save up for my season. I didn't know there was going to be more money than in construction, but it ended up being more money. It worked out," she said.
"It's pretty awesome. I feel pretty lucky out there. I get to be in the outdoors, in the mountains. That's what I would want to be doing anyways. It's pretty sweet."
However, "sometimes, it is definitely more of a job," she said. "People have a different idea about it, that I'm out just riding for fun, but it's like a grind. We're pulling 12-, 15-, 16-hour days sometimes. It's a lot of hard work, but it's worth it to be doing this instead of mixing cement.
"People say: 'Oh, you're so lucky.' Really? You want to try it out? It's awesome, but you've got to sacrifice a lot for this lifestyle. You don't get to live a normal life. I didn't want to live a normal life, so I'm fine with it," she said with another laugh.
This year, Nike is producing a team video and X Games is holding a video contest called X Games Real Snow, Real Surf, Real Ski Backcountry and Real Women, in which a gold medal will be awarded for the best 90-second video part.
"It's two snowboarders, two skiers, two surfers and two skateboarders - all the action sports, the top two girls in each sport. It's happening right now for the guys. The winner gets announced at X Games Barcelona in the summer. That's the other thing that I'm really trying to win this year," she said, admitting only three or four other women in the world are taking the same career path.
"It's really hard for girls to make a living filming video parts because people just want to make fun of girls. We've got to really, really, really stand out. The riding has to be the bottom line if you want to get respect in this industry. Otherwise, they just want you to do an act and photo shoot and hang your (boobs) out and whatever. You can quote me on that."
Male and female riders are treated differently in the sport, she said.
"When the guys are up against each other, it's insane. I would just give up (because) they are so good.
"As a girl, you have a chance to really stand out if you just try. And that's something I hope that little girls out there know."
Kimura was never into Barbie dolls, frilly dresses and other stereotypically female interests.
"I had cool little dude friends growing up, and they just treated me like one of the guys. We camped, fished, built forts, played war, all that kind of sh*t."
This year, she started taking off-season training more seriously.
"I'm not 20 anymore," she said. "It really has made a huge difference for how long I'm going to be able to do this. I can definitely see myself maybe retiring at 35, but there are people who are older than 35.
"Girls especially, they seem to have longer careers than the guys because they kind of get it later in life, I guess. I could be doing coaching, marketing, being a team manager. Just from the people that I know now and the opportunities I could get after this, it's pretty kick-ass, too."
Her family has supported her since the beginning.
"We're very proud of her," her father, Blake Kimura, said this week. "She's been following her dream forever, and she's finally got there."
Added her older sister, Tara, 30: "I think she's amazing. I have nothing but respect for her. I'm just so happy for her. She's worked so hard. I always told her that things were good, it was going happen, she just had to just keep going and she was going to make it. I knew it. And sure enough, she did, so I'm not surprised."
The two of them started snowboarding about the same time. Tara eventually had health problems and quit, but recently began boarding again.
"I don't do the crazy stuff - not on a snowboard," she said with a laugh.