The next time the X Games gold medalist tried it, though, he went with a friend who was an avid snowboarder. They encouraged him to do what felt comfortable. That day, he did his first jump onto a box.
“I was off from there. I just loved it,” he said.
Now, the 22-year-old Powell, a native of North Carolina who lives in Vermont, makes a living flying off of and flowing through powder and is trying to help others learn how to do it, too.
He, along with several other high-profile snowboarders, are participating in the Red Bull Slide-In Tour, an initiative to bring snowboarders of all ages and skill levels along the East Coast together to ride and learn with professionals.
The tour hit Loon Mountain in New Hampshire on Friday and headed to Sunday River in Maine on Saturday before finishing up in Vermont’s Bolton Valley on Sunday.
Each location features a “progression park” which includes simpler areas to learn the basics as well as rails and boxes for more ambitious riders.
Powell says he’s enjoyed watching riders, who he said ranged from age 9 to 40 years old, test themselves and grow their confidence.
“It’s just so cool. We’ve had kids who were learning how to ride and trying to get better. And then you had like just friends of those kids who had heard about the tour who just came to ride,” he said. “The people I couldn’t teach because I had other people — everyone was just teaching everyone.”
That’s what Powell and Maggie Leon, a Killington native, were hoping to see.
“I heard you gave a tip to someone about how to hit a down rail,” Leon recalled to Powell. “Then that person was word-for-word repeating the exact same thing to their friend.”
Leon, a 24-year-old engineer-slash-snowboarder, thrives on trying to get new boarders into the scene. She’s working with programs to help amputees get into riding and coaches at Park Affair, a Killington-based group geared toward women and girls.
Of course, she’s no slouch on the board herself, leaping out of buildings and riding on walls to win Red Bull’s Heavy Metal street snowboarding event in Duluth, Minnesota, a month ago.
As Leon and Powell both point out, snowboarding isn’t just limited to the high-flying half-pipes people are accustomed to watching during the X Games and Olympics. In fact, the street-style events are the ones that often get Leon’s brain buzzing with new ideas.
“It definitely makes you think more creatively,” she said. “Where I grew up, we just had rocks on the side of the trail. When you learn how to ride that rock, you slowly build off of that.”
While Leon says her analytical side sometimes makes it tougher to get into “autopilot” mode when she’s snowboarding, Powell describes his style as “living on a prayer,” constantly trying to create new things out of nothing just as he did growing up in areas without many jumps.
If you didn’t know any better, you’d even think his wipeout on the runway of his gold-medal-winning Knuckle Huck run of the 2020 X Games was planned — “That was a fall, I’m going to claim that.”
His trademark flair and rising profile has also led Powell to become “the face of Black snowboarding” in a sport whose well-known athletes are typically white and male.
That’s why he says he’s constantly on the lookout for “the next me,” which can be difficult in an environment where not many people look like him to begin with.
“A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, no, that’s not me, none of us are out there doing that,’” Powell said of the perception of snowboarding among Black people. “I’ll see Black people on TikTok saying something like, ‘I’m out here. I should not be doing this.’ And I’m like, ‘No, keep doing it. You’re doing great.’
“Like, I’m here, and I proved you can do it. I think just the more it happens, the more we show people that they can, the more it will happen. You just got to believe and do it.”
Similarly, Leon says she’s seen “a ton of growth” in the number of women becoming involved in snowboarding, whether they’re competing themselves or documenting the action, and wants to keep that momentum going.
“Sometimes it’s hard … when a guy is posted at the bottom cheering you on, it doesn’t feel the same as another fellow female,” she said. “I just think our presence is something you can’t really put into words, and it inspires people in a different way than just speaking to it. I think being there and encouraging someone can definitely change their view or perspective.”