Words: Stan Leveille
DOB: January 18, 2000
Home Mountain: Cataloochee Ski Area, North Carolina
Sponsors: Nitro, ThirtyTwo, Red Bull, Recess Ride Shop. I wish I could say Crab Grab!
Some young riders are brought into the spotlight in a way that borders on nepotism, guided through predetermined steps from a young age, and it is no surprise when those people end up in the spotlight. Often in circumstances like this, the rider can develop traits that cause them to get lost in the noise, the ever-growing minutia surrounding what makes someone “marketable” in this fast-moving, double-tap world. Zebulon Powell, on the other hand, is a rider who defeated common barriers to entry and cannonballed onto the scene with a combination of raw talent and energy that is nothing short of mesmerizing. It’s my personal opinion that Zeb Powell officially crossed the threshold into snowboarding’s next-up somewhere in the middle of a skate session at High Cascade in 2017, when he removed his shoes and stomped a barefoot ollie down the large stair set that once led to the back quarterpipes surrounding the lodge in the center of Government Camp. But Zeb’s story isn’t entirely new. He is the latest in a lineage that has existed in snowboarding’s history since its beginnings: riders who have cut their teeth in Vermont. Emerging just when East Coasters might have been getting worried that the best riders in the world are no longer bred amidst their icy slopes, enter Zebulon Powell, a 20-year-old born and raised in North Carolina who ended up in Southern Vermont. Through social media clips alone, Zeb has landed himself on mandatory invite lists, from nuanced contests like SKOLF all the way up to the largest scale of the Winter X Games. And if it was the shoeless ollie that got him in the door, it was his 2019 X Games gold that put him in the hearts and homes of millions of Americans. While Ben Hinkley’s career included two silver medals, Zebulon Powell will go down in history as the ﬁrst Black Winter X Games gold medalist.
Working at the summer camps at Mt. Hood is quite the rite of passage. How did you end up at High Cascade?I put in an application a year before. Apparently, you usually don’t get it that ﬁrst year but the next year, so I applied last year and got the job this year.
Did you hit them with, “I don’t know if you know, but I’m the kid who won knuckle huck.”
Haha. I didn’t.
So, the last time we did an interview, it never actually reached print. I didn’t feel like the photo we had of you did your style justice. Were you pissed?
No, I don’t really get mad over that stuff. I think my riding speaks for itself; I don’t need an On Deck to prove myself, to make it official that I’m here.
I lament that though, because we had you scheduled on for an On Deck, but I really wanted it to be the best possible representation. Then of course, you had a bigger year than I think many of us would have imagined.
If anything, highlighted by your win at X Games. How does an invitation to knuckle huck come through? I imagine an American eagle drops off some sort of exploding package and that’s how you ﬁnd out you’re invited?
That would’ve been so sick. Honestly, I kind of caught on that I was going. I woke up one morning and saw that the head of invitees sent me a DM. It basically said, “Hi, I’m with X Games. I was just wondering if I could get your email?” I just kind of sat there with my jaw dropped. I was like, Oh shit, it’s happening. I showed my friend and said, “I think I’m about to get an invite to X Games or something like that.” They were like, “Oh shit, you’re really on X Games mode.” I was like, “Yeah, damn. I guess so.”
Did you see that coming? An invitation to X Games?
My coaches, Scott Johnson and Ross Powers both coached Jack Mitrani, who is in with X Games. Within a week of the ﬁrst year they were doing knuckle huck, I had just tried that cab underflip off the knuckle. Right after that, I go down to the van and Scotty’s like, “You know how they’re doing the knuckle huck? I think we might be able to get you in. But don’t get your hopes up, because it might not happen.”
Might be a false SNOWBOARDER Mag On Deck situation where they interview you but they don’t actually put you in the mag.
Haha, yeah. Exactly! I was hoping to go that year, but it didn’t happen. They couldn’t get me in. Maybe I wasn’t official enough or something.
I think you are probably as official is it comes in all matters concerning the knuckle, but hey, that is why I assumed the role as your official coach at the knuckle huck. Though, I did little to give you strategy. Can you describe the feeling going into your first major competition?
Going into practice everyone was really intense up at the knuckle. I was just being normal me. I was up there with Jake Canter, who had his earbuds in—complete focus mode. Fridge and Marcus [Kleveland] were speaking a different language with their coaches, and it was super intimidating. I was like, Oh shit, we really in this bitch. My ﬁrst thought was, I did that dub last year. I gotta actually do it on this knuckle. I honestly thought it was a good knuckle for it, but I just kept getting bodied. So, I tried some other stuff in practice, but still kept getting bodied. I was not used to the knuckle.
It was hard to tell that you were feeling stressed. Maybe it was the sunglasses that threw me off. I was a huge fan of the heart-shaped glasses you showed up with. How do the glasses come into play?
Well, if you know me, you know how I like wearing goofy shades. It makes snowboarding less serious than it always is. I was kind of nervous walking up to the actual comp by myself and I looked down and just saw these heart shades at my feet. I was like, I’ll just throw these on.
They were just on the ground?
They were just literally right in front of me.
You kind of entered a ﬂow state. Had you tried that coffin slide method before? It seemed like you made that up as it was happening and added to the spectacle of it all.
In a few of my edits I had done a coffin slide melon and front three out. Those didn’t really ﬂip. Everyone was like, “Coffin backﬂip! Coffin backﬂip!” I didn’t really know if it would work, but I was trying to ﬁgure out what shit to do for the comp while I was there.
As in, you didn’t know what you were going to do at all before you got to Colorado?
I don’t think I practiced knuckle tricks at all besides one day with Ryan Finder at the Peace Pipe. So, the day before the contest I just tried a coffin slide with a method. I was like, Oh, that feels good.
From the that ﬁrst drop in, I think a lot of people knew that contest was yours for the taking. And of course, you took it home! What was it like after that? You must get recognized a bunch more.
Yeah, I get recognized a lot. I’ll see people eyeing me, and then they be like, Oh shit! acting like they don’t see me. It’s that type of thing.
Is that nice or is it weird?
It’s kind of weird, kind of cool. I notice it and I look around to see, then I’m like, Damn, don’t let it get to your head, that’s lame.
I mean not only did you win, but you were the ﬁrst Black X Games gold medalist.
Yes, I was the ﬁrst Black X Games gold medalist. I think it’s pretty sick. Sometimes I feel like I can’t really claim true gold medal, because it’s not like a real event, you know? Or maybe I should say, there’s riders I look up to in comps who think it’s not a real event or who might claim it’s not a true gold. It’s a gold ring, not exactly a medal. But I don’t know, I feel like for the culture—for snowboarding—it counts.
Dude, if you can claim rail jam X Games gold, then this counts.
What’s on Zeb Powell’s to do list now?
Film more street. I’m actually moving to Burlington so I can ﬁlm more street next year because I’ve got a crew up there. My ﬁrst few years at Stratton Mountain School were spent with my friend LJ Trombley. We kind of grew up there together for three years, the best of friends, but he left that school and dipped to Burlington. He started calling me telling me to come up, but I had school so I couldn’t go up that much. This year, I ﬁnally didn’t have school and went up there and got a taste of it and had a blast. I was there for a week and I stacked clips, so I got some stuff coming.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think snowboarding for the past couple years was more of a hobby for you. You’re really good at board sports. Did that gold solidify that snowboarding is what you want to do or was that the goal for a while?
It didn’t change my feelings about wanting to snowboard professionally, but I think it changes my opportunity, which I need to get off my ass and think about. I won an X Games gold. I’m a Black snowboarder. I kind of need to put my mind together and see what I can come up with. That’s like a triple threat—having Red Bull backing you, winning an X Games gold, and being Black—and also, as people say, changing the sport. All four of those together, it could really do something.
Do you have anyone to look up to or do you feel like you’re charting new territory?
I mean, Black snowboarder-wise, Russell Winﬁeld and Stevie Bell have deﬁnitely been people I look up to. And of course, Dillon Ojo. I remember when I was super young, I was at SMS in my early years and it was the ﬁrst time I asked myself, Are there any other Black snowboarders? I found out quickly about Dillon Ojo. Previous to SMS, no one around me was watching snowboard edits, so I didn’t have anyone to look up to. I looked up Dillon Ojo and saw some of his street clips and was like, Yo, that’s so sick. I’m not the only one. There’s more people out there.
And going full circle, you got out into the streets this year. That’s a big thing. In snowboarding, you’ve got the contest kids and you’ve got the street kids and they’re kind of at odds with each other. For you to step into the streets was a huge image booster, whether or not you know it. Did you struggle with it?
I don’t really have a struggling type of mindset, I guess. I haven’t been thrown into a situation where I’d struggle. I might somewhere, I don’t know. I guess we’ll see. So far, yeah, full speed ahead into the streets. I was super stoked to get into it. I got a few clips. I wore a helmet for my ﬁrst clip and I’m kind of backing the helmet, but I kind of feel weird wearing a helmet in the streets.
Helmet in the streets is a tough one. I think a lot of people struggle with that.
It’s weird. Also, I’m getting this hair ﬂow, so I kind of like a little ﬂow, too.
The ﬂow is important.
I got a couple clips. One street clip I’m really stoked on. I think I’m stoked on it because when I was asking about it, the rest of the crew just looked at me all crazy. It’s basically a big redirect. [see: this issue’s midcover] I was like, “Oh, okay. Is this not normal?”
Ok, just a couple quick ones to wrap this up. Main reason not to wear goggles?
I could go on a ﬁve-minute rant about them, but long story short: my eyes still water when I wear them and I hate it.
What’s harder: a Rippey Flip on a 173 or keeping your sunglasses on for 17 threes?
Deﬁnitely keeping my sunglasses for 17 threes.