© LAUREL GOLIO
Larger than Life: Zeb Powell
Snowboarder Zeb Powell is inspiring a new generation of riders who admire his pure joy for the sport and his belief that everyone is welcome to come along for the ride.
It's two hours before his afternoon competition at the 2023 X Games, and Zeb Powell wants to eat. Though the pro snowboarder is buzzing with energy, he’s in need of some lunch. The tweezered small bites in the luxe VIP station in Aspen are not going to cut it. A member of his team makes a mad dash to the media tent to retrieve some bananas and protein bars. But by the time she returns, Powell has decided he needs to burn off some steam and take a couple of runs on the mountain, so his manager stuffs the food in his coat pockets. It’s just another day in the life of a mega-talented 23-year-old athlete in perpetual motion.
Three years ago, Powell burst onto the scene when he won X Games gold in the knuckle huck competition as a rookie. Unlike established snowboarding disciplines that demand perfect execution of certain moves, this newer event rewarded creativity and seemed custom-made for Powell, who wowed judges and spectators with his unconventional tricks. Indeed, the move that clinched his 2020 win, a coffin slide to backflip—which he did while sporting a pair of pink, heart-shaped sunglasses—is still getting talked about by snowboarding pundits to this day.
Seemingly overnight, Powell became known as a rider who embodied snowboarding’s roots, where the goal is simply to have fun with friends and entertain (and impress) each other with originality. And as the first Black snowboarder to win gold at the X Games, his mere existence set off an avalanche of media attention and then celebrity friendships and then broader fame—all of which gave him the opportunity to leverage his exposure for the greater good. Despite the pressure of these labels, Powell takes it all in stride.
“I just do my own thing, and it seems to be working,” Powell says with a small shrug and a smile. By just being himself, he’s become a beloved ambassador for the sport and a change agent for the culture.
The signs of Powell’s impending, high-energy greatness hark back to his earliest years growing up in Waynesville, North Carolina. Powell is the youngest of five children, adopted as an infant by Carl and Valerie Powell. After having a biological daughter, Jessica, when they were a young couple, the Powells decided to adopt what they thought would be their second— and last—child, a son named Tyler. (“I wanted two kids because I have two hands,” Valerie Powell, a former teacher’s assistant, explains with a laugh.) But as the years passed, Carl, who ran a local chip mill, expressed a desire to adopt again, and they brought home another son, Dylan. Two years later, they adopted another daughter, named Scout. OK, they agreed, now we’re done.
But then a couple years after that, they got another call from the adoption agency: “We have five babies who need homes. Would you consider taking one of them?”
I JUST DO MY OWN THING, AND IT SEEMS TO BE WORKING, REGARDLESS OF WHETHER I WIN OR NOT.
“Yes,” they said without hesitation. And the baby they got turned out to be Zeb, who they named after his great-grandfather, Zebulon. By now, the Powells were pros at raising kids, so they thought rearing their youngest would be a cinch. But then Zeb turned out to be very different.
“I was a freak child,” Powell jokes. (His mom later clarifies, with mock exasperation, “He was a ripped baby!”) He’s still a wall of muscle today, with a neck as thick as a tree trunk.
When he was an infant, Zeb Powell’s motor skills were off the charts. “My body was moving faster than my brain could,” he says. By eight months, he was running. By 18 months, he was riding a bike without training wheels, and by that tender age, he was already getting into all kinds of mischief, including what Zeb fondly recalls as “the scooter incident.” According to family recollections, early one morning Zeb crawled out of his crib and made his way downstairs. Then he pulled a piano bench from the living room to the front door, unlocked the chain and deadbolt and proceeded to jump on a Razor scooter heading toward town. It wasn’t until a neighbor saw Zeb riding the scooter in his diapers and brought him back to the house that his parents realized what had happened. “I don’t know what I had in store,” Powell says of his scooter shenanigans. “I feel like I was planning to just ride down a hill. Now that I think about it, I really liked that hill.” (“If Zeb would have been my first, I would have had a stroke,” his mom says later.)
But to his parent’s credit, they remained remarkably laid-back about their freakishly athletic baby. “They were just so mellow about me,” Powell says. “I was pretty lucky to have that.” By kindergarten, Powell was diagnosed with a form of attention deficit disorder, which likely explains why he loved to move around a lot.
Powell is describing his hyperactive childhood over breakfast the day before his competition in Aspen. He’s gathered with some of his crew, who are devouring eggs, pancakes and green juice blends. Powell is picking at a disappointingly dry waffle when his mom and his Aunt Terri walk into the restaurant—and his world stops. He greets the two of them with big bear hugs while happy tears form in mom’s eyes. Spend just a few moments in Powell’s orbit and hugs, laughs and high-fives are bound to happen. It’s impossible to ignore how he radiates a positive energy that’s highly contagious.
As everyone settles back at the table, his mom—a spunky and youthful woman in her early 60s who speaks with a Carolina twang—notices the waffles and launches into a tale about her son’s obsession with the breakfast food, but more specifically, his childhood maple syrup addiction. “Now that I live in Vermont, it’s great,” her son admits.
Years before Powell made it to Burlington, Vermont, where the snowboarding craze was born, he was riding on his local mountain in North Carolina, the Cataloochee Ski Area, about 30 minutes from his childhood home. The very first time he tried snowboarding at Cataloochee, he was on a family trip when he was 7 years old. In a tale that has become part of Zeb Powell lore, his parents put him in a class, and his teacher, who was “mean,” set up the goofy rider on the wrong foot. Not surprisingly, he hated it.
It wasn’t until a year later, when a friend had a birthday party at the resort, that Powell decided to give the sport another try. After he did a few runs, he headed for the terrain park—and managed to hit a box jump by the end of the night. After that, he was hooked. From then on, Powell was snowboarding nearly every day after school and up to 12 hours a day on weekends. By the time he was 9, his skills had surpassed what the mountains of North Carolina had to offer.
Luckily, his mom, who grew up in Colorado, had a sister, Terri Baldwin, who lived in Denver. Even better, Baldwin is the quintessential “cool aunt.” On a mission to assist her nephew, she learned that a brand-new facility, Woodward Copper, was about to open a snowboarding camp, and it just so happened she had a friend who had a condo nearby. The year-round action sports hub offered foam-pit jumps, indoor snowboard training and access to top coaches, who immediately noticed Powell’s preternatural abilities. One coach in particular, Chad Otterstrom, encouraged Powell’s parents to enroll their son in the Stratton Mountain School, a boarding academy in Vermont that has trained dozens of winter athletes for the Olympics. Eventually, a few years later and with the help of a scholarship, his parents sent him off to Stratton when he was 13.
“It was crazy,” Powell says about landing at Stratton, a total winter wonderland. “To be in a place where the kids are into the same things as you? I was having so much fun that I would forget to call my parents.”
At Stratton, Powell tried out every discipline—halfpipe, big air, slopestyle, rail jams. He did it all. “As a kid, you don’t really know what you want,” he explains. “But then you start to figure out where you shine and what feels the best.”
Although Powell won competitions, he realized he had the most fun just filming tricks with his friends, and his coaches encouraged that. Dylan Demers, who coached at Stratton, would shoot videos of the kids, and his sharp edits of Powell’s innovative moves started blowing up online. At the time, Powell was only 16 years old.
“Even when he started to get a lot of attention, he stayed humble,” Demers says. “And I really don’t think he’s changed at all from when he was 16. He’s the same person who loves snowboarding just as much.”
Although Powell struggled with his schoolwork because of his ADD, it helped that the class size at Stratton was very small. “He worked his butt off,” his mom ays, “and he got all As and Bs.” At graduation, he received the Lisa Tuttle Award, which is given to a senior who has done the most to “bring joy and a sense of worth to the Stratton Mountain School community through positive action and by being a worthy role model.” Then he did a backflip off the stage. That is Powell in a nutshell.
“I’m prouder of that than anything he’s done on the slopes,” his mom beams.
On the day of the knuckle huck competition in late January, Powell is shuffling from appointment to appointment. In the morning, it’s a quick on-camera bit, followed by an autograph signing in the VIP area. Finely manicured adults in designer snow gear line up to meet Powell, who kindly obliges. But when two young girls approach him with shyness in their eyes, he gets up from his seat and greets them on their level. Then there are side hugs and selfies, and the girls grin with glee. Whether you’re a seasoned rider or trying snowboarding for the first time, Powell just wants you to have fun. Everyone is welcome on Planet Zebulon.
After he won gold at the X Games in 2020, his Instagram following exploded. Before that historic win, Powell didn’t think much about being a Black snowboarder or how that might influence others. But when he started getting flooded with messages from people who were excited to see someone who looked like them on a snowboard, everything changed. “That’s when I realized I wanted to advocate for the sport because of the color of my skin,” he says.
Less than two months after his win, Powell and his team produced the first-ever Red Bull Slide-In Tour. The concept was simple. Powell and his friends, including other pro snowboarders, would go on a road trip and visit resorts throughout New England. Even if the conditions were poor, the goal was to have a blast and encourage locals to join them on the mountain.
As the tour has grown, Powell has partnered with nonprofits to help “make the mountains more colorful,” as he puts it. For example, last year at the Mountain Creek stop in New Jersey, the tour teamed up with Hoods to Woods, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that introduces inner-city children to the outdoors through snowboarding. Mountain Creek, which is located about 60 miles from New York City, is not known for its fresh powder, but that’s not the point. “We had kids out in the pouring rain wearing sweatshirts,” says Peter Cirilli, Powell’s manager and one of Powell’s filmers. “And they were having the best time ever.”
“Oh my gosh, they were the best,” Powell says. “They were just so stoked. For some of them, it’s their first time on the board. Some of these kids came to that program because of me—I didn’t really know the impact I had.”
AS A KID, YOU DON’T REALLY KNOW WHAT YOU WANT. BUT THEN YOU START TO FIGURE OUT WHERE YOU SHINE.
These days, almost wherever Powell snowboards, a gaggle of kids will start following him. Rather than speed ahead and lose them, Powell slows down, lets the kids catch up with him and gives them high-fives when they reach the bottom.
“The biggest thing I take away is, you don’t shut anybody out—ever,” says Cirilli, who has been working with Powell for the past year. “Anybody can talk to him. It’s an instant conversation. As a 23-year-old snowboarder who’s getting pulled in a thousand different directions, to be able to talk to him like a normal person? That’s pretty incredible.”
Of course, it’s not just kids who are drawn to Powell’s magnetism. Fashion designers, musicians and professional football players frequently reach out to him, and the recognition can catch him off guard. One time, after attending a Travis Scott concert that crawled into the early hours of the morning, Powell worked up the courage to approach the rapper, even though he was surrounded by security. “It was a real shot in the dark,” Powell says. But then, to his surprise, Scott lost it. “He just turned around and was like, straight-up fangirling and freaking out. I didn’t even know how to act.”
ANYBODY CAN TALK TO ZEB. IT’S AN INSTANT CONVERSATION.
For the past couple of years, Powell has had the opportunity to introduce Black musicians, athletes and other icons to his sport at an invite-only event produced by Burton called Culture Shifters. It didn’t matter if the high-profile guests had never snowboarded before; it was about showing them a good time, making them feel welcome and being part of a movement to grow the culture of snowboarding through their audience. One invitee was the rapper A$AP Ferg, who instantly jelled with Powell. The rapper also gamely posted a video of himself falling over on a snowboard to his 5 million Instagram followers, which went viral. Here was this cool and accomplished rapper from Harlem fumbling at something but having fun. Perhaps a city kid might see that clip and give snowboarding a try, too.
“He’s genuine,” Powell says of Ferg. “For him to listen to me and understand the vibe in our culture through that trip, it was so cool.”
The meeting must have made an impression. At last year’s X Games, when Ferg happened to be in Aspen to perform, he gifted Powell his first pair of gold grills. The moment was caught on camera: Powell, struggling to put them on and awkwardly wiggling his lips; Ferg cracking up and making jokes. “You’re like E.T. trying potato [salad] right now,” Ferg says. “Bro, I don’t know what I’m doing,” Powell responds. Then they both laugh and hug. Powell still proudly wears them to this day, whenever the occasion feels right.
When asked to describe his sartorial style, Powell wrestles to find the right words. But with the help of celebrity stylist Kwasi Kessie, whom he met through A$AP Ferg, he says his world has opened to clothes and colors he didn’t even know he liked until he tried them on. And in the case of his first signature apparel line with snowboard company ThirtyTwo, the inspiration came from a flame-covered NASCAR jacket he found at a thrift store. Whatever Powell wears, the clothing naturally becomes cool because of the person who’s wearing it. The result is a playful mishmash of snowboard gear, sharp streetwear, thrift-store treasures and spontaneous accessory decisions that’s uniquely Zeb Powell.
An hour before the knuckle huck competition in Aspen, Powell finally digs into a banana and peanut butter power bar. He admits he doesn’t have a game plan for which tricks he’s going to attempt. “I have ideas,” Powell says. “But that’s the thing, I can have ideas all I want, but I can completely change my mind on the way down.”
To be clear, almost no one else performs with that kind of spontaneity. Only Zeb Powell knows what he’s going to do a split second before it happens. “I think that’s why people are so excited to watch me compete,” he adds.
I HAVE IDEAS, BUT THAT’S THE THING. I CAN HAVE IDEAS ALL I WANT, BUT I CAN COMPLETELY CHANGE MY MIND ON THE WAY DOWN.
At the base of the course, a row of steel barricades divides the media from the scores of fans gathered to watch the event. On-the-ground commentator Nikky Williams asks the crowd, “Who’s here to see Zeb Powell?” Everyone screams. A few minutes later, Williams turns to Valerie Powell, who has a front-row view of the action, and says, “This is Mama Powell, y’all!” More screams.
“Zeb is so unique; he’s a trailblazer,” Williams continues. “He’s pushing the entire sport forward. Does he have any superstitions or traditions that he does before competition?” she asks his mom.
“Not really, except he doesn’t like to get serious. He just wants to have fun,” mom responds with a laugh.
In knuckle huck, athletes speed down the slope and then launch themselves off the crest of the hill. In the air, they attempt to throw their best trick and land without falling. While the riders don’t get as much air as they would off a ramp, the competition typically favors originality.
For a couple of runs, Powell stumbles slightly on his landings. But on his third run, he begins with a backward somersault that propels him down the mountain. Waiting for him at the curve of the knuckle is another rider—a human prop—who’s lying on his side with his attached board sticking up in the air. He hurls his body over the trusting friend, their boards almost kiss and then Powell performs a layout somersault and sticks the landing. “Wooooow!” a commentator exhales on the replay.
In the end, Norwegian rider Marcus Kleveland takes home the gold for the second year in a row. Powell doesn’t place. But among the riders there are smiles, hugs and hearty slaps on the back. There’s no animosity on Powell’s face, only joy.
As Powell makes his exit, he must pass a long row of fans who are waiting for him behind the barricade. He spends the next hour signing autographs and taking selfies. They do not care that Zeb Powell didn’t stand on a podium today. He’s already won their hearts.
For more information about the 2023 Red Bull Slide-In Tour, click here.
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