Zeb Powell is about to drop in. His first X Games. His fourth run. The nascent Knuckle Huck contest, just about to blow up.
It’s late January 2020, a couple months before the world will shut down, and the Aspen crowd waits to watch competitors launch off the knuckle — the tabletop hump beside the Big Air jump. It’s more fun — and less predictable — than a halfpipe or slopestyle event, where the bazillion rotations are impressive but ... repetitive.
Powell stands out in a big way. A Black rider in the snowflake-white snowboarding world, he is known to ride unconventional boards — fish sticks in the park, freeriding on a 210-centimeter deck! — and eschew beanies, helmets and goggles.
Tonight is a bit different. With a required brain bucket pushing his dreadlocks against his head, Powell peers through a pair of heart-shaped shades that belong on the cover of a Lolita paperback.
Then things get weird. Seconds into his descent, Powell’s on his back. What just happened? Did he slip? Or was it another wild trick, like the Coffin Slide — an intentional backslide on the snow — that kick-started his first run?
Unfazed, Powell is back on his feet. He doubles down, completing a sequence that momentarily silences both commentators.
This ain’t dead air.
It’s the sublime surprise of bearing witness to the future of snowboarding — and being helpless to clearly articulate what you just saw.
Having watched the clip several times, I’d call it a nose press on the drop to an ollie off the nose, a sweet recovery the 21-year-old Powell has dubbed a “fall and save at the same time.” He then goes off the knuckle backwards (aka switch), launching into a strange, semi-inverted, spinning, body-contorting airborne shuffle — and of course sticking the landing.
No wonder his family and friends sometimes call him Cat. With feline swagger, Powell makes even missteps appear intentional. To this day, the trick has no name —transcendence is like that sometimes.
Powell grew up in Waynesville, North Carolina, with three siblings. Like Zeb, they’re adopted. From day one, he was in perpetual motion, incapable of walking a straight line.
“There was always a zig or zag or a jump or a flip,” says Zeb’s mom, Val, in an X-Games-produced profile video.
As many East Coast riders do, Powell first hit the slopes at night — a time when visibility is tough through tinted lenses, which may explain his distaste for goggles. Despite an instructor setting up the goofy-footed rider with a regular stance, the then-seven-year-old hit one box and was all in.
North Carolina’s minuscule Cataloochee Ski Area — 740 vertical feet, 50 acres, tiny terrain park — became his second home, even when the weather sucked.
“I was always trying to get as much air as possible,” he recalls. “That forced my mind to look for all the jumps I could find. That still rings true today.”
Like Rhode Island’s Yawgoons and New Hampshire’s Bode Miller, Powell embodies how crappy conditions and small hills can cultivate alpine game changers. Check his Instagram, where nearly 200,000 followers monitor his mind-boggling spins, flips and slides from Stowe, Vermont, to Mount Hood, Oregon, and you’ll get the picture.
But how good is he? Legendary X Games commentator Selema “Sal” Masekela puts him in the class of icons Shaun White, Travis Rice and Chloe Kim.
“Zeb Powell is the type of snowboarder who comes along once or twice in a generation,” he raves. “His style is unique and feels new. It’s a definitive self expression — you’re watching the creativity and the potential of the sport be recalibrated in real time.”
As his star rises, Powell is aware of the opportunity he has to get young people with diverse backgrounds excited about snowboarding. When we spoke, he was coming off a few days at Big Snow American Dream, an indoor slope in East Rutherford, New Jersey. There, he rode with a crew from a non-profit called Hoods To Woods that introduces city kids, many of them Black, to snow sports.
“I want to come up with a cool event that caters to my type of riding and upbringing,” he says. “A fun event that everyone would love around the East Coast and maybe even take it nationwide or worldwide.” Fortunately, his main sponsor is a brand with a rep for making such things happen: Red Bull.
Still, we wonder, what’s with those heart-shaped sunnies?
Legend has it Powell’s sister Scout was wearing a pair when she took her little bro out for breakfast the morning of the contest. Later that day, she lost them at the venue. He then found a similar if not identical pair.
“I was walking out for practice before the event,” Powell remembers. “I realized I didn’t have any shades or any goggles or anything. I looked down, and they were just by my feet. She might be the reason why I’m known for them now.”
But Powell’s goggle-free days might becoming to a close. He’s working with Smith Optics on a collaboration.
Skullcandy is another new sponsor, joining Thirtytwo, Burton Snowboards, Etnies and North Carolina’s Recess Skate and Snow shop. So he’s been listening to music while riding more often than he has in the past. But it’s complicated.
“I like looking at my surroundings, so I don’t like having music playing,” he explains.“I do love music, so it’s kind of crazy that I don’t like having earbuds in. I’ll sometimes play music out of my pocket.”
Powell’s taste is broad. He likes rap, especially Mac Miller and Travis Scott, but his favorite artist is Mariah Carey.
And he credits tunes with helping him get in the zone: “I put on a Jessie J song [“Domino”] and pretty much figured out my whole run for the Knuckle Huck. That song made me fall into my groove and my flow state.”
Another key? Looking at a run more like a skate park — and envisioning lines and tricks that have never been tried before. Conceptually, they might seem insane. But watching Powell, they appear paradoxically impossible and obvious.
That’s a big reason he’s so fun to watch. Even inverted (which happens often), he’s got incredible awareness and proprioception, often dragging his trailing hand on the snow as though he’s gently petting a puppy. And of course he has style for days, no matter the circumstances.
Which brings us back to that fourth X Games run. After some unintelligible giggling and gasping, commentator Craig McMorris, a pro himself, finally breaks the silence: “At no point did Zeb Powell look like he was in control of his body during the entirety of that run.”
And yet, you get the sense watching him— on Instagram, YouTube or, if you’re lucky, in real life — that Zeb Powell is still somehow in total control. And that no matter which way his body contorts, he’ll stomp the landing and ride it out.
So what will the 2020 Knuckle Huck champ — who missed the 2021 contest due to injury — bring to the tabletop next? Even he couldn’t tell you. But when you view the world through heart-shaped glasses, anything is possible.
Like the rider himself, his favorite gear has plenty of pop.
“They’re just easy. I can take them off easily if my eyes are watering or I need to clean them. They provide a nice field of vision. And honestly, they just look really styley.”
“I hate snowboard jackets, but I found this NASCAR jacket in a thrift shop and liked it so much I turned it into my outerwear line. It was the first true creation of my own signature gear, andI love the way it turned out with all the embroidery and style.”
“It just fits my style of riding. As far as hitting rails and jumps go, it’s made for doing both of those. It’s a slopestyle mix board — not too stiff but not too sloppy, the perfect middle. I love that thing.”