“Your favorite snowboarder’s favorite snowboarder.” It’s the ultimate compliment in snowboarding, directed at an athlete so authentic, stylish and talented that even the sport’s top riders can’t help but gush. And in snowboarding today, there’s little doubt most snowboarders’ favorite snowboarder is Zeb Powell.
Born in Waynesville, North Carolina, Powell developed his snowboarding prowess at Cataloochee Ski Area before moving to Vermont in junior high school to attend Stratton Mountain School. Neither state is known for being a home base for professional snowboarders, who tend to concentrate around the powder-heavy mountains in Colorado, Utah and California.
But Powell, 22, has always done things his way—when he was first learning the sport, his instructor forced him to ride regular-footed (left foot in front). He hated it. When he tried again on his own in the more natural-feeling goofy stance (right foot in front), he was off to the races.
So planting his flag on the East Coast and working to build up the snowboarding scene there, as well as in other places nationally where the sport is underrepresented, was a natural choice for Powell.
Powell, who is sponsored by such heavy-hitters as Burton, Red Bull, ThirtyTwo, Etnies and SMITH Optics and recently signed on as a JBL ambassador, has amassed an immense amount of influence in the snowboarding world. His authenticity and selectivity in terms of which events and contests he participates in—usually ones aimed at growing the sport, not winning medals—are a major attraction for sponsors.
MORE FOR YOU
Though he’s considered a slopestyle rider, you won’t see Powell competing at X Games, Dew Tour or the Olympics in that discipline. In practice, he’s much more of a streetstyle snowboarder, spending his time tearing up terrain parks and urban features and participating in smaller events with less rigid formats.
The streetstyle discipline has been seeing a major resurgence in recent years with the return of rail jam–style events as halfpipe and slopestyle—and the household names they boast, like Shaun White, Chloe Kim and Mark McMorris—have dominated the sport. Media coverage and sponsor dollars primarily go to the disciplines that garner the most exposure on linear networks or streaming.
Indeed, aware of how much fans love watching Powell and other street riders defy the laws of physics with their mind-bending tricks, major contests have added smaller-scale events to their programming—knuckle huck for X Games and super streetstyle for Dew Tour. Though these events are also judged, the jam format and looser structure than slopestyle or halfpipe honor snowboarding’s roots and better reflect the way fans in the crowd ride.
In recent years, Powell’s sponsor Red Bull has been a major force in carving out a space in the snowboarding industry for its pro athletes to compete in more hyperlocal streetstyle events. In 2022, Red Bull brought back its Heavy Metal street contest for the first time since 2003, with team rider Benny Milam hosting in Duluth, Minnesota. This year, team rider Grace Warner hosted the event in Detroit.
Since 2017, Powell and Red Bull have run the Slide-In Tour, an event that aims to bring snowboarders together outside the contest setting. Central to everything Powell does in snowboarding is his mission to increase the sport’s inclusivity and accessibility.
This year, that took the form of including progression park clinics in the Slide-In Tour’s three stops (Copper Mountain, Colorado; Boreal Mountain, California and Killington, Vermont). The clinics were strategically held in hike-to areas of the resort so that riders could participate without having to purchase a lift ticket.
While 2023 was significant for Slide-In Tour in that, for the first time ever, it expanded outside the East Coast, Powell made sure to honor the event’s roots and guiding ethos.
“The reason we started Slide-In Tour was to shine light on the East Coast resorts that don’t get as much love as they used to,” Powell said. “When professional snowboarders show up to a small mountain on the East Coast, the locals get really excited and sometimes ask, ‘What are you doing here?’”
Many events that used to be held on the East Coast have been canceled for lack of snow, so Slide-In Tour holds a special place for the local community.
“The idea of spreading the tour out across the country is dope because we get to take the energy that we built on the East Coast and bring it to the West, even though the soul and spirit of the tour lives back East,” Powell said.
Taking Slide-In Tour national presented an opportunity for other resorts to support Powell and Red Bull in the work they’re doing to make snowboarding accessible for everyone.
Copper Mountain events senior manager Catherine Boucher said hosting a Slide-In Tour stop allowed the resort to incorporate access and new opportunities for riders into its programming and event schedule. Home to the Woodward Copper barn and other progression parks, much of Copper’s programming revolves around developing new riders, regardless of their age or ability level.
“Hosting Slide-In tour also allows us to promote inclusivity for riders while working with athletes like Zeb Powell, who is a pioneer for creativity in the sport,” Boucher told me. “Copper strives to enable participation within our mountain community and having Zeb and his crew out just opens another door for any athlete to perfect their skill in the park or on the bunny hill.
“Every athlete had to start somewhere, and Zeb has recognized his role and ability to help anyone and everyone.”
The fifth iteration of Slide-In Tour saw Powell team up with Warner, Dutch rail master Jesse Augustinus, Red Bull Heavy Metal winner Maggie Leon, Alex Caccamo, Brolin Mawejje, Brantley Mullins, Luke Winkleman and Jake Canter.
On the first day of the Copper stop, the crew linked up with Chill Foundation, which partners with social service agencies, mental health agencies, foster care programs, juvenile justice programs and schools in local communities to engage youth participants and provide them with boardsports gear at no charge.
For the other two days of the stop, the crew captured content and had a session for kids on a couple features.
“The goal with these sessions is to push kids out of their comfort zone and have them try something new,” Powell said. “Copper is a dope place for progression because they have every feature in every size possible to learn on.”
With rail jams such as DIYX Street Jam, hosted by Ethan Morgan; Heavy Metal, hosted by Milam and Warner; and Red Bull Rail Yard, hosted by Luke Winkleman, Powell and the Red Bull crew are breathing new life into the street discipline for a new generation.
“These events are dope because they bring snowboarding to places that snowboarding isn’t seen. Anyone can feel like they are a part of it just by being there and watching,” Powell said.
To him, the event that stood out most was Red Bull Rail Yard because it took place in his home state of North Carolina.
“The crowd at that event was so rowdy and brought a new level of energy to that mountain that you don’t see at other events,” Powell said. “The reason the energy is so high is because they don’t see professional snowboarders at their mountain that often, especially that many of them.”
According to the National Ski Areas Association, which represents more than 300 alpine resorts that account for more than 90% of the skier/snowboarder visits in the U.S., in the 2021-22 season, snowboarders accounted for just 27.9% of resort visits nationwide. Snowsports participants in the U.S. are 88.7% white and 63% male.
That only 1.5% of U.S. snowsports participants are Black is attributable to underrepresentation as well as lack of accessibility, Powell said. After his X Games knuckle huck performance in his rookie year went viral, many people reached out to Powell to tell him that he was the first Black snowboarder they’d ever seen. In that way, he’s doing for the current generation what Selema Masekela did for his.
“We still have a lot of work to do in the space,” Powell acknowledged, but after seeing the effect that Slide-In Tour has had on the community, he thinks they’re on the right path.
Powell says he and his Red Bull teammates share a similar mindset in that they don’t take snowboarding too seriously, but rather aim to show people how easy it is to have fun sliding around on the snow with friends.
“The best part about snowboarding is you can do whatever you want,” Powell said. “You can film street, you can film backcountry, you can compete or you can do what I do and take a piece of it all, defy physics and keep a smile on my face.”