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Zeb’s big jump: Middle-schooler gets invite to elite snowboarding school

out frFlips, spins, big jumps and high speeds — these things challenge the average human being, but, for big-air snowboarder Zeb Powell, they’re no big deal.

Five days out of the week during ski season, the 13-year old can be found out on the slopes at Cataloochee Ski Area in Maggie Valley, grinding on rails, zipping down hills, twisting and turning head over heels in the air. He dominates most competitions he enters into and is always working on the next big move.


Zeb’s feats have earned him the reputation in his hometown of Waynesville as being one of the best snowboarders around, and his skills have caught the attention of sponsors and pro boarders. Now, it’s won him a spot in an elite snowboarding school in Vermont, where he ships off to in November.

For Zeb, it’s all about him, the hill and a fresh powder coat.

“I really just lose myself when I snowboard,” he said.

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Last year, at a snowboarding competition in at Appalachian Ski Mountain near Boone, the judges were giving out the awards following the event. They announced Zeb as the winner, and when he didn’t step forward to receive the prize, they asked where he was. The answer: he was already riding the chairlift back up the hill.

A teacher from Zeb’s school even called his mother, Val, to express concern that Zeb’s only aspiration was to be a professional snowboarder. But, upon learning more about him, the teacher soon realized that, in Zeb’s case, it wasn’t quite the pie-in-the-sky fantasy it appeared to be.

If there is any sort of career path to becoming a professional snowboarder, Zeb is on it. After winning a number of competitions in Western North Carolina, his parents signed him up for a summer snowboard training camp in Colorado. The exposure he got there helped him land his first sponsorship. Now, a company called Never Summer Industries, which manufactures snowboards, sends Zeb an endless supply to compete and practice with.

This past March, Zeb was granted admission into the elite college preparatory academy, Stratton Mountain School, which couples snow sports training and education. In mid-November, he will begin a daily regimen that includes snowboarding in the morning, under the guidance of an Olympic gold-medal winning coach, and classes in the evenings.

Not only did the school look at Zeb’s grades and personal essay as part of the admissions process, he had to make an appearance at the school for an on-the-slope tryout and interview. In total, 36 Olympians have trained at the school. Although Zeb was admittedly nervous when he went for tryouts, he was able to remain his typical calm, collected self on the hill.

“I was kind of nervous, but when I saw the mountain, all that kind of went away,” he said. “Setting up for the trick, I don’t know, my mind goes blank.”

While the seventh-grader is preparing to leave behind his friends and family and move into a dormitory nearly 1,000 miles away from home — a life step that rattles most college-aged young adults — he is approaching it much in the same way he does his tricks. He’ll undoubtedly miss his old life while away until April 2014, but he’s prepared for the big jump.

“I’m excited to try bigger and better stuff,” he said.

Local skateboarder and snowboarder Jared Lee, who is a professional skater himself, said in terms of professional development Zeb is in a good spot. Having the opportunity to attend a school like the one in Vermont and devote himself to his training, while still advancing his studies is ideal for someone with aspirations of going pro.

“That’s a real head start he’ll have, especially at such a young age,” he said.

But, none of it is a real surprise to Lee. He has watched Zeb grow up and develop as an athlete. From the skate park to the slopes, he said, Zeb has always had a fearlessness that gives him an advantage in the acrobatic-like sport of freestyle snowboarding.

“Most kids are really timid, but Zeb was the exact opposite,” Lee said. “Being upside down doesn’t freak him out.”

Since Zeb was big enough to walk — which he did at eight months — he has never failed to amaze his parents, siblings and anyone else around to watch his feats of athleticism.

At 18 months, he could ride a Razor scooter. Soon thereafter, he was riding a bicycle without training wheels down hills in his neighborhood in Waynesville, though his legs still weren’t long enough to reach the pedals. In kindergarten, he did back flips off the playground swings.

“He can’t even walk down the sidewalk without flipping on a pole or doing a spin,” said Val. “The rule of all his friends is ‘don’t do what Zeb does.’”

Before long, Zeb was participating in all kinds of activities centering on gravity defiance, speed and putting the tallest column of air between him and the ground. Skateboarding came easily to him. So did wakeboarding when he decided to pick it up for the first time two summers ago. He easily placed second in his first tournament this year, putting to shame a field of 20-year-olds.

It was the sport of snowboarding, however, that has really entranced the kid. 

After Zeb had an early introduction to snowboarding while attending a friend’s birthday party at Cataloochee Ski Area, it wasn’t long before he was bombing down the ski hill’s terrain park — a snowboarding obstacle course — sliding over rails and jumping off ramps.

By second grade, Zeb was on the middle school snowboard team, winning competitions against boarders twice his size. By 10 years old, he was doing flips and tricks on his snowboard that are practiced by professionals at the X Games, the Olympics of extreme sports like freestyle snowboarding.

His latest project is the Rodeo 720, a double rotation move done off a snow ramp. He tirelessly studies Internet videos and tutorials and practices the movements his body needs to make in the air to execute the jump. Each sunny day, he is counting down the days until the first snow.

“It’s all he thinks about,” Val said. “He’s passionate about it.”

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