Going off piste: Zeb Powell wants to shake up snowboarding
© Brian Nevins/Red Bull Content Pool
Zeb Powell is set to become the future face of freestyle snowboarding and has the ability to progress the culture, on and off the mountain.
Once in a generation, a snowboarder comes along that transcends time and discipline and on a cold winter night in late January 2020, it happened. “I was freaking out. I actually remember the morning. I got a DM from the head of invitees [at X Games]. He was like, ‘Hi. I'm with X Games. I was just wondering if I could get your email.’ And I was like, ‘Oooh. Why would he want my email?’ I was with my friend and I said, ‘Oh my gosh,’ and handed him the phone, like, this is crazy. So, it wasn't official yet, but we both kind of saw it coming.
"So, we went on with our day and then I remember being on my friend’s porch, just chilling. It’s a really nice day out, then my notification bar dropped down and it said something like ‘You've been invited to X Games...’ I saw that and I was just like, ‘Oh my God.’ I started freaking out, hands on my head, just walking around. My jaw dropped.” And just like that, the world was unknowingly prepping for an introduction to one of the most dynamic and exciting riders alive today.
Zebulon Powell doesn’t come from your prototypical professional snowboarder background.
Many professional snowboarders hail from areas that boast a massive amount of snowfall every winter and are known for their mountainous regions, but such is not the case for Powell. “I'm from Waynesville, North Carolina and my home hill was Cataloochee Ski Area. It’s about 30 minutes from where I grew up and the snowboard scene isn’t big. Luckily, I was there when the park crew was pretty rad and they were doing their own thing, like filming videos and stuff.”
Powell’s father ran a chip mill and his mother is a teacher’s assistant and according to Powell, “They don’t ski or snowboard, but they’re insanely supportive of what I’m doing.” Powell’s parents had a daughter and then adopted four children, and Powell is the youngest of the five. “It’s a very diverse family,” says Powell.
Like hundreds of thousands of adolescent teens, Powell started skateboarding when his friend gave him a board, but it didn’t catch on with him right away. “I wasn’t super into it at first actually, but then I started liking it more and more. I think my brother had a skateboard, too. We were trying to boardslide this little thing on our block and I was like, ‘I can’t do it,’ so I asked my dad if I could get a pair of skate shoes and he said yes. So, I went and got skate shoes and I tried the boardslide over and over again with the shoes and still couldn’t do it. I was like, ‘Dang it, I still can’t do it. These shoes don’t work.’” But then Powell’s dad noticed that he was enjoying it more and more and, according to Powell, “He started bringing me to the skatepark and that’s where I fell in love with it.”
It's a natural transition from skateboarding to snow when you grow up in a seasonal environment like the East Coast. You skate all summer and then it starts snowing when winter kicks off and so you just transition it to snowboarding. “One of my friends had a birthday party at Cataloochee but I couldn’t go because I didn’t snowboard, so I was like, ‘I want a snowboard,” Powell laughed. Again, Powell didn’t immediately fall in love with it until the third time he strapped in at his home hill. “Third time’s the charm, I guess. The second time I went, my instructor set me up regular, even though I’m goofy and I wasn’t a fan. And she was mean, too [laughs]. But after that, I went up with my family friends and I set my board up goofy and within the first run or two, I got the hang of it. I ended up hitting this box in the park and it was game on from there.”
Then Powell was scouted by none other than snowboard legend and former Forum all-star Chad Otterstrom to attend the infamous Stratton Mountain School (SMS) in Vermont. “Otterstrom was a Stratton Mountain School West coach and I came back the next year and he would tell my mom that I was pretty good, like ‘This kid’s got something. You should really consider enrolling him in a snowboard school,’ but my mom didn’t wanna send me away. Eventually, we went up to SMS and did a tour and I thought it was so insane. Went riding at Mount Snow and they had a Superpipe, all these rails and everything and it reminded me of a video game. From there, I started going to SMS.” While the raw talent was evident in Powell’s riding, it was SMS that refined his skillset and allowed him to focus on riding while attending school and pursuing a degree. That’s where things went into warp speed for the young North Carolinian.
Fast-forward to that cold winter night in late January when Powell was biting down on a gold medal in Aspen in front of millions of people, and it could be considered the culmination of all the effort put in from his parents, his coaches, his friends, his family and ultimately, himself. Powell is officially on track to become snowboarding’s next superstar.
And this is where the next chapter of Powell’s legacy starts. As the first Black snowboarder to ever take home gold at the X Games, Powell’s rise to fame is running parallel to a long-overdue social and racial reckoning in both society and the action sports community. Racial equity in snowboarding needs to progress, as does inclusivity in a category that is dominated by white, affluent families with expendable income to purchase gear, lift tickets and transportation to and from the mountains. Underprivileged communities simply don’t have access to the mountains and that needs to change. Powell is now aiming to use his platform and his voice to enact forward progress on this incredibly important matter.
“I want to say Dillon Ojo was the first Black snowboarder that I recognised. I'm pretty sure I was at Stratton Mountain School and I was like, ‘Wait a second. Are there any other Black snowboarders?’ And then my friend was like, ‘Yeah. Dillon Ojo,’ and I looked him up on Instagram and saw some of his street clips. It was then that I thought, ‘Oh dang. There are some more of us.’ The second Black snowboarder I saw was Shred Mamba [Jonathan McDonald]. I remember watching an episode of Sunday in the Park and seeing him do this huge backflip and I was like, ‘Oh my God. There's another one.’ I remember thinking he was super sick. I think those are the two that really inspired me.”
Powell used his early motivation to continue his journey and now, part of his mission is to become that figurehead in the snowboarding community for other kids that may be in a similar situation. Powell says, “I'm kind of hoping it’s like a Renaissance for Black snowboarders. That would be sick. Just to finally feel like, ‘Yo. You're not the only one,’ because it can definitely feel like that because there’s so few of us. I just hope we can bring out more Black snowboarders because I feel like there's definitely some kids who are just amazing athletes but are like, ‘Black people don't snowboard.’ I can show that Black people can snowboard. And if there's an amazing athlete who thinks that they can’t snowboard, they’ll go on with a different path in life, but if they see other Black people actually snowboarding, that’s amazing! Boom. There you go. Black people can snowboard.” Powell is planning different ways to use his voice for the greater good and that's the mark of a true revolutionary, not just another snowboarder. It comes from his core values imposed upon him by his diverse and empathetic upbringing.
“Now that I have this following, I really do want to do something like work with non-profits that help this cause. And I want to do it on my own, too, I guess. It's funny. That's always been my dad's dream. He’s always said, ‘If you get famous, I don't care about the money. I want to see you give back to the less fortunate communities.’ That’s ingrained in my head, so of course, I want to do it. Hoods To Woods just hit me up and I’m going to do a podcast with them soon. I got one foot in the door finally, so I just want to keep the ball rolling with them. And then I've also pitched some ideas to Red Bull and ThirtyTwo, letting them know that I would like to do something in the future. If I was to have the perfect situation for me, it would be sick to have some of my friends and we go around to different cities and do snowboard clinics. Everyone’s invited, there’s all different types of things to ride for all levels and they could get to see people snowboarding to make it more relatable to them.”
Powell’s future in snowboarding is seemingly infinite. He’s a perfect blend of skill, personality and compassion and exactly what snowboarding needs right now. Years from now, Powell very well might just be one of the most influential snowboarder to have ever strapped in, for a multitude of reasons, but as of this moment in snowboarding history, Powell is one of the most talented and explosive riders we have ever seen and he’s looking to leave his legacy on the mountain and off of it.