One morning in early March 2020, Zeb Powell, then a 20-year-old from Waynesville, N.C., woke up on his buddy’s couch in Burlington, Vermont. Zeb was fresh off the Red Bull Slide-In Tour featuring stops at Stratton, Killington and Jay Peak in Vermont.
A few months earlier, Powell, a 2019 graduate of Stratton Mountain School, swiftly launched into fame with a crowd-pleasing gold-medal performance at his very first X Games.
Suddenly, everyone recognized this wildly talented Black kid with spiky dreads who rode with rose-colored sunglasses and a huge grin.
“It was crazy there,” Powell remembers of the Killington Red Bull stop. “I’d start signing autographs and think we were done and then there’d be this whole slew of other kids who’d want me to sign too.”
But that day last March no one in Burlington paid much attention as Powell, Jonathan Twombly (or LJ as his buddies call him), Joey Leon, and a few others from the skate and snowboard crew, Spotheads, unpacked their snowboards and camera equipment at Main Street Landing. There, overlooking Lake Champlain, they came face to face with Big Green; a handrail that rims a walkway two stories off the ground.
Until then, Big Green was fairly untouched trick-wise, says LJ. “I remember, Zeb was just like, ‘Yo, I want to get a clip on Big Green.’ … A lot of pros have come and gone through Burlington, but I’m pretty sure at that point the only tricks that had gone down on it were front board drop off, boardslide, and half cab.”
Next thing they knew, Powell was up on the walkway strapping into his bright pink Nitro 203-cm swallowtail powder board and testing the speed of the drop-in. On his first try, he got caught up on the rail and fell two stories to the snow below. On the next attempt, he stomped a front-board pretzel, rotating midway through. He then switched to another board and landed a front three out, then a back three out—both first try. After a few attempts, he nailed a front lip four out, popping the tail of his board up and onto the feature and sliding forward; then rotating out 450 degrees clockwise. Powell’s friends went nuts as he casually rode off the landing and onto the cement, rushing him with hugs. The footage is part of Spotheads’ self-titled film.
To understand the difficulty of what Powell accomplished on Big Green, understand that this isn’t your local mountain’s terrain park. This rail was 20 feet up in a concrete environment. To build the landing, the group had shoveled snow from the surrounding area to form a large hip, but either way you look at it, falling had consequences.
Powell goes big, but sometimes that means falling big, too.
That same week at a spot in Alburgh, VT, he was going for a 50 hop 50 on a down gap down rail. Zeb clipped on the transfer, catapulting him to the bottom of the stairs and straight onto his back. “He just laid down on his back, curled up into a ball, didn’t say anything for 10 seconds,” LJ recalled. “He was just completely silent. Then he got up and just went, ‘Yeah, I’m fine. I’m gonna try it again.’” Sure enough, he landed it next try.
A few months later, Powell moved to Burlington.
Zebulon Powell’s path to snowboard stardom is not a typical one. He grew up in rural North Carolina where his father operated a chip mill. Neither of his parents were skiers or snowboarders. Though he was a natural athlete, Powell didn’t take to team sports. “My dad loves baseball, so he really wanted me to play and I guess my stats on the first game were crazy,” Powell said in a Zoom call. “My dad was so proud, but like a third of the way through the game I was just sitting in the grass picking flowers.”
Skateboarding was more his speed. “Someone handed me a skateboard and I just had fun on it,” he said. But after the local skatepark shut down one winter, Powell found himself bored.
Zeb is the youngest of five kids. His parents, Carl and Valerie, are both white. They had one daughter, and then adopted Zeb and his three other siblings, two of whom are Black and one who is Asian. “Everyone in our town knew us. I guess I have never felt like I’m seen as a Black person, but just a part of my family,” Powell says.
Carl and Valerie have always supported whatever their children have a passion for. “My dad wasn’t even into skateboarding or anything,” Powell says. “He learned how to build a skateboard so I could build a skateboard. He taught me all that stuff.”
Seeing how he took to skateboarding, his family signed him up for a snowboard lesson at the local mountain. “I actually hated it,” Powell remembers. “My instructor was mean and set me up regular instead of goofy so that didn’t help and yeah, I just didn’t have fun at all.”
Luckily, that one bad day didn’t turn 7-year-old Zeb away from snowboarding forever. The next time, Powell’s dad, Carl, sent young Zeb up to Cataloochee with a family friend who knew the sport. After setting up the board goofy (right foot forward), it only took a couple of runs for Powell to get the hang of it. “That first night I hit a box and was just so stoked on snowboarding,” Powell recalled.
Soon Powell was spending all his time at the mountain, transferring the tricks he knew from skateboarding onto the snow.
The Next Level
As he began competing, Powell started noticing flyers for the High Cascade snowboard camp in Oregon. Powell asked his mom if he could attend. His parents were not ready to send their son all the way across the country, but he had an aunt in Denver, only an hour and a half from Copper Mountain and another summer camp; Woodward.
After attending summer camps at Woodward Copper for four years, Powell’s camp coach, pro snowboarder Chad Otterstrom, recognized his talent. “I guess he went up to my mom and told her like, ‘you need to get him to a snowboard school.’ And he recommended Stratton Mountain School.”
Powell admits that at the time, the thought of leaving his close friends in North Carolina was hard, but he knew that if he wanted to pursue snowboarding this was the next step.
“I remember walking into Stratton Mountain School and there was this guy in front of us; a tall guy with a super thick Southern accent, Zeb’s dad Carl. And right away he introduced me to Zeb,” LJ remembers. “Zeb was just a really quiet, humble kid.”
At Stratton, Powell had the opportunity to learn from Director of Snowboarding, Ross Powers, the two-time Olympic medalist in Men’s Halfpipe and five-time X Games medalist.
“I knew from the beginning that Zeb just had a lot of passion for snowboarding,” says Powers, who grew up in Londonderry.
During his time at SMS, Powell competed in everything from slopestyle to halfpipe and even boardercross, doing the local USASA competitions, then nationals and the Rev Tour.
Powell’s explosive power served him well in competition. “He’s one of two individuals to touch the ceiling of the building off the super trampoline at SMS…and that’s maybe 20 feet [high],” Powers notes.
But what Powell loved most was improvising. LJ, his roommate at SMS, got used to being amazed by Powell. “Pretty much, when you ride with him anywhere, at any time, he will just bust out the craziest tricks that you’ve never seen him do before, or he’ll try things that you think are just not possible at all. Like we’re standing at the top of a rail or a jump, I’ll just be like ‘Yo, Zeb, you should try this.’ And I’ll name a crazy wild trick that none of us wants to try or anything and he’ll just kind of look at you and go ‘Yeah, sure.’ And hop in and try it.”
For anyone who has watched Powell’s 2020 X Games knuckle-huck performance, one trick likely stands out. Flashback to just another day riding Carinthia Parks at Mount Snow with LJ. On the way up the chairlift Powell saw someone slide out on the knuckle of one of Carinthia’s towering jumps. “I don’t think he really knew what he was doing. But he just kind of slid out to his butt,” Powell said in an interview with The Summit Daily. “Immediately I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. I want to do that…We (Powell and LJ) like to go really fast and go on our butts or our back like that. So, I guess I saw that and I saw the guy flip out and I connected to that.”
That sliding trick evolved into the coffin slide that Powell perfected and was part of the repertoire that won him the X Games.
“One of the hardest things about coaching Zeb,” Powers says, “is you can come up with a plan but he’s just going to do what he feels like doing out there. You know if something happens and say, he doesn’t get a full rotation and lands going backwards instead of forward, he’s still going to charge fully into that next jump or rail and go for it.”
That improvisation and creativity was showcased to the world when Powell rode in the 2020 X Games.
X Games Glory
In 2019, the X Games introduced a new competition; the knuckle-huck. Instead of hitting a jump, riders do tricks off the slope next to it, a knoll, or onto the flat deck and into the landing. The event is held in the same location as the Big Air event. Though riders are not hitting the daunting 80-foot jump, many, like Powell, are still going big.
After hearing of the contest in 2019, Powell knew it was something he wanted to do. Through connections with Stratton Mountain School alumn and X Games announcer, Jack Mitrani, Powell’s coaches tried getting him in, but it didn’t work out that year.
That didn’t stop Powell from perfecting his extensive bag of tricks. The day after the 2019 X Games knuckle-huck, on January 27, he posted a video clip on Instagram showing his attempt at a back one onto the knuckle and into a cab double underflip. The tagged location was simply “Yeet.”
He didn’t land it, but the fans didn’t care. Comment after comment tagged the X Games, mentioned he should have been in the competition that year and some even predicted he would win in 2020. Among the commenters were pro snowboarders Sage Kotsenburg, Sven Thorgren, and Denis Leontyev. The post got more than 84,500 views. In the minds of many, Powell had just cemented his spot in next year’s competition.
Just under a year later, an invite appeared to go to Aspen for X Games 2020. What came next rocketed Powell into the snowboarding stratosphere.
He took off for Colorado with his family there for support. “I was nervous up until I looked down in the snow and saw these heart-shaped glasses. When those showed up at my feet I was like, ‘Ah perfect!’” Powell remembers. “It was funny, too, ‘cause I think they were my sister’s shades that she had bought that morning and she thought she had lost them.” Zeb picked them up and put them on. “When I compete in any competition I like to approach it from a lighthearted, you know, goofy side, making it not so serious, I guess, even when it is X-Games. I think that’s what I really connect with in snowboarding.”
Powell with his rose-tinted, heart-shaped, glasses and perpetual grin stole the show.
On his first run, he made it clear to everyone why he got the invite that year. “He and I were talking,” remembers Powers, “And I’m like, you know, the coffin slide…do you think you could do a backflip out of that? He’s like, ‘Oh, I don’t know, maybe.’”
Back in Vermont, Powers watched the competition on TV. “Sure enough I’m watching and he goes for it first run and does his coffin slide. He goes upside down, starts doing the backflip, but then he adds the coolest inverted method to it…you know it was just mind-blowing.” For Powers it was a special moment: the method was what helped him win Olympic gold in 2002.
Life as a Pro
This season, Powell was the only East Coast rider to get an invite to the X Games. But due to a torn meniscus sustained while skateboarding last fall, he was not able to compete. Instead, he’s been rehabbing at home in North Carolina, hanging out in Burlington, riding the parks at Carinthia, Killington, and Sugarbush when he can, and scouting more places to ride street. Now that he has recovered from his surgery, Powell hopes to focus on filming with Spotheads and his current sponsors: Red Bull, ThirtyTwo, Etnies, Recess Skate and Snow, and as of February 2021, Burton. Formerly, Powell’s board sponsor was Nitro.
“This year I want to focus on street, because I think there’s just a lot I could do there. I don’t even know my boundaries yet for street. That’s kind of what I want to stick with for the next probably year or so,” he says.
As for the Olympics or other competitions? As Powers says, “I don’t see Zeb going that path right now. Street riding is a big part of our sport right now and that’s what Zeb wants to do—it’s right up his alley. He’s a pretty good all-around snowboarder and can do anything you know? That’s exciting and bringing his riding to the streets is going to be fun to watch.”
Having fun and being fun to watch is what Powell excels at.
Ross Powers will always remember the scene at Powell’s 2019 Stratton Mountain School graduation: “He gets his diploma, and everyone’s clapping, and then someone in the crowd says backflip and he just backflips off the stage without even thinking about it. In his jacket and tie and everything else.”
The only thing missing? A pair of bright, goofy shades.
—Additional reporting by Lisa Lynn
Feature Image: Zeb Powell snowboards in Killington Vermont, USA on 20 December, 2018 // Brian Nevins/Red Bull Content Pool //