All in the family with Breckenridge’s Method 4 Life Academy (video) |

All in the family with Breckenridge’s Method 4 Life Academy (video)

When it snows nearly a foot in Breckenridge, the next batch of Olympic hopefuls get a little powder day R&R.

"It's good for your soul," said Sandra Hillen, part of a small elite group with Method 4 Life Academy of Breckenridge. "Sometimes I feel like you can burnt out on the jumping and training and learning, so this reminds you how much you love snowboarding again."

On Thursday morning, Hillen and her fellow athletes with the local academy were taking a break at Breck's Ten Mile Station after an hour or two of morning powder laps. It had snowed almost nonstop for 24 hours and was still snowing when I met up with the group, led by academy founder Cameron Hunter, a former snowboard instructor who founded the program in 2009.

In the past seven seasons, Method 4 Life Academy (known as M4LA for short) has grown from six local riders to roughly 70 athletes of all ages and abilities. There are Olympic hopefuls like Hillen and Olympic medalists like Ayumu Hirano, the 18-year-old Japanese phenom who took second in snowboard halfpipe at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and has hardly slowed down since.

Like most programs, M4LA is based on year-round training in North America and across the world, but unlike most programs, it's for snowboarders only. It's built for riders who want to move from entry-level contests like the U.S. Revolution Tour to high-level contests like Dew Tour, X Games and, with any luck, the Olympics. That means daily laps through the terrain parks at Breckenridge and Copper, but every so often, even Olympic hopefuls need a pow day.

"Something like this is mentally refreshing," Hunter said as the group geared up to head back into the snowstorm. "We've been working really hard at Copper getting ready for events, so it's just very refreshing to ride pow — smiles and laughs and tomahawks everywhere."

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The training grounds

Along with Hillen, Hunter was joined by a handful of other riders in M4LA's elite group. There was Dylan Thomas, a Pennsylvania native who's been living in Breck and working with M4LA for four seasons. There was Junha Choi, a 19-year-old from South Korea who's in his first season with the academy. Then, there was Asher Humphreys, a 21-year-old Breck native who specializes in slopestyle and loves Justin Bieber — and doesn't care who knows about it. While everyone sits around a table on the Ten Mile Station deck, snow falling thick and white, he talks about his favorite songs: "Sorry" is a good one, he says, and so is "Let Me Love You." Both are on his riding mix. Humphreys and Thomas competed in the snowboard big at the U.S. Grand Prix in Copper in mid-December, and every athlete in the elite group travels to Waterville Valle, New Hampshire next week for a Rev Tour stop.

After the group straps in, everyone follows Humphreys, Thomas and one of the academy's first riders, Grant Giller, into the trees for a fast lap to the Breck SuperConnect lift. In 2009, when Hunter was lead freestyle trainer for the resort's snowboard instructors, Giller suggested that he branch off and launch a program just for snowboarders. And so he did.

"We're trying to be that well-rounded, one-stop shop for national team kids," Hunter said. "We work with pipe riders and slope riders, like (Silverthorne local) Red Gerard before he joined the national team."

M4LA isn't the only program in the game. Other outfits, like Bud Keene Progression Camps, train snowboarders and skiers from winter to summer at Copper, High Cascade and Windells, both at Mount Hood, Oregon. But M4LA is one of the few to focus solely on snowboarding, with a slate of pro coaches, including Elijah Teter. The veteran Vermont native co-founded the academy with Hunter and works exclusively with Olympic athletes like Hirano and 2014 Winter Olympic women's halfpipe champion Kaitlyn Farrington.

That's just the surface. This season, M4LA coach Ben Boyd started working with the South Korean national team, and coach Michael Slaughter is guiding the Canadian national halfpipe team. The academy also works with all 20-some-odd members of the University of Colorado-Boulder freestyle ski team.

But the academy's bread-and-butter is young riders. This season, Hunter and his coaches, including athletes like Hillen, work with 34 youth in the "Weekender" program.

"We have kids from age 6 to Olympic medalists," Hunter said. "It's the entire range of snowboarding."

Powder turns

Before heading to Park Lane for powder-day park laps, the group met at the top of Contest Bowl for tree jumping and powder slashing. Up first was Giller, who missed the grab on his first hit and started hiking up as everyone else waited to drop. Then came Hillen, followed by Humphreys and Thomas and finally Hunter. As Giller hiked up the steep, waist-deep bowl, the rest laughed and joked and generally had a good time at his expense. When he launched off a half-buried tree and nailed a shifty, everyone cheered and then laughed some more.

"This is a pretty standard day: just laughing and having a good time," Hunter said before everyone pointed it downhill to Park Lane. "Sometimes you forget that it's even work."

Meet the athletes

The pros

Kaitlyn Farrington (USA) — 2014 Winter Olympics snowboard halfpipe gold medalist

Ayumu Hirano (JPN) — 2014 Winter Olympics snowboard halfpipe silver medalist

Nathan Johnstone (AUS) — 2011 FIS Snowboarding World Championships halfpipe winner

Kazu Kokubo (JPN) — 2010, 2011 U.S. Open halfpipe gold medalist

The up-and-comers

Summer Fenton (USA) — 2018 Olympic halfpipe hopeful

Asher Humphreys (USA) — 2018 Olympic slopestyle and big air hopeful

Sandra Hillen (MEX) — 2018 Olympic slopestyle hopeful

Dylan Thomas (USA) — 2016 USASA National Championships slopestyle silver medalist, 2018 Olympic slopestyle and big air hopeful