USA Water Ski & Wake Sports

In and Out - Off and On

Note: This article first appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of The Water Skier magazine, the official publication of USA Water Ski & Wake Sports. If you are not a member of USA Water Ski & Wake Sports and you are interested in receiving the quarterly magazine, join now.


Written by Corey Vaughn

Photography by Jason Lee


The most fundamental skill of slalom skiing is a solid wake crossing. A strong and balanced position from side to side is critical to clean, rhythmic skiing in the course or on open water. Arguably, the second most critical skill is maintaining balance and fluidity through the turn. During the wake crossing, the boat and rope support the skier’s body. Near the apex, or widest part of the turn, however, the skier receives little to no support from the line. This “freedom” can be unsettling and often leads to bad habits. Let’s have a look at what we should be striving for and some of the common pitfalls that skiers experience in the turn.


Corey Vaughn slalom skiingInto the Turn – Off of the Handle


You have crossed the wake, stood up to allow the ski to change edges, and kept the handle close to your body. Although you are now decelerating, you still have considerable momentum. You intuitively sense that it is time to release your outside hand. What is your plan at this moment? Do you rapidly let go and punch the handle inward? Drop your head and shoulder to the inside to slow down and make a tight turn? Drop your weight onto your back foot to regain line security? Try to counter rotate like Marcus Brown at 41 off?

All too often, we envision the turn as a sudden change of direction. We picture ourselves turning on a dime and, therefore, attempt to force a U-turn at the buoy. I am most guilty of doing this when I free ski, which is one reason I am not a great open water skier. The truth of the matter is that from the time we let go of the handle to the time we reconnect with the handle, we spend more time traveling the length of the course (Y-axis) than we do the width of the course (X-axis). This fact of physics becomes plain to see by watching slalom from an overhead view. Having a clearer understanding of the physical reality on the water enhances our technique by allowing our expectations to align with the forces in play (the boat, rope and rhythm).


Football Anyone?


Legendary coach and slalom guru Chet Raley once told me “The great thing about slalom skiing is that it’s all offense and no defense. We score shots, we don’t block shots.” This statement resonated with me and helped me develop an analogy for this critical part of the pass. 


When it is time to let go of the handle you are like the quarterback of a football team throwing a pass. Like a quarterback, you need to be balanced; you need to know the receiver’s route so you know where to aim; and you need to grasp the timing so that the ball arrives in the correct spot at the right time. In skiing the handle is the ball, and when you release it you are the quarterback leading your most trusted receiver.


But who is the receiver? That’s you, too! Remember, water skiing is all offense all the time. You get to play the two most fun and athletic positions. Great QBs and receivers rehearse their timing routes to perfection. To make a great play, the QB does not throw the ball where the receiver is but ahead of the receiver to where the player will be. 


A buttonhook is a play in which the receiver runs a short route and then turns to face the quarterback. It is the only play that the quarterback throws the ball directly at the receiver, who is usually hit right away by the defense. In water skiing, this is the equivalent of trying to turn too suddenly and taking a slack rope hit from the boat. Sometimes a strong football player or strong skier can wrestle through this moment, but it is not what you should be striving for. Your goal is to catch the ball in stride and “take it all the way.”


The Takeaway


You can be as good as the best quarterback and receiver because you are literally playing both roles. When you let go of the handle, you sense your speed, balance and trajectory. With this data, you can make a precise pass, aiming the handle for the spot where you will ski under it through the finish of the turn. Moreover, the ball is technically in your possession the whole time from the pass until the catch. However, you need to treat it like more like a football in flight than something to cling to for balance. You should be able to detect the slight pressure on the line while you are one handed. This sensitivity allows you to either trust your planned route or modify it to field the ball in stride, rather than trying to snatch it up.  


Following this analogy, you do not want to throw the ball (handle) too low, too high or too far to the inside. You want to come off the handle with confident awareness of your speed, trajectory and balance, trusting yourself as receiver to catch this forward pass. This is where it is critical to remember that we are traveling more along the Y-axis than the X. 


Corey Vaughn slalom skiingOut of the Turn – On to the Handle


You have done your job as quarterback and released the ball with balance, confidence and trust. Your free hand, body and ski travel away from the handle toward the apex of the turn. Do not panic and try to snatch the ball right now, keep running your route. Do not shift to your back foot to slow down and gain line security or drop your head and shoulders to the inside for a diving catch. You can stay on your feet and continue carving your route back to the spot where the ball is headed. Remember, you and the handle are moving forward this whole time.


If you trust yourself as quarterback, the ball will be right where it is supposed to be as you catch it with your free hand. This will happen just as the rope tension is becoming great enough to support your body reconnecting with the line. The increasing rope tension will help you accelerate in the new direction and off you go. There is no better feeling than catching the handle in stride - no slack, no hit, just open field ahead and, potentially, more G-Force than an astronaut during takeoff. Developing this trust and execution between quarterback and receiver takes practice. It is the fun, offensive practice that keeps us coming back for more.


A Note About Counterrotation


This topic is worthy of its own article, but for our purposes here, it is most essential to understand that the amount of counterrotation a skier has is directly proportional to that skier’s speed and trajectory when they release the handle. Counterrotation also depends on the skier’s body and stance. In short, a 15 or 22 off skier should not be trying to mimic the counterrotation of a pro, like Marcus Brown at 41 off. By football analogy, Marcus is throwing a 50-yard pass to an insanely talented receiver. Most humans would do well to complete a 12-yard pass with precision. Trying to force excessive counterrotation will cause you to throw as bad a pass or run as bad a route as dropping your head and shoulder to the inside. 


Also, Marcus is turning in a way that is athletic to his body. Chris Parrish does not exhibit the same degree of counterrotation at 41 off as Marcus, but he turns with extreme precision in a way that honors his anatomy and athleticism. In football terms, this would be like watching Drew Brees and Tom Brady play quarterback. You would never mistake one player for the other, but they are two of the greatest because they have unlocked their own deepest level of athleticism. The point is, do not try to mimic any one skier. Understand the fundamental reality of the game and then play your heart out to develop your own athletic movements.


Corey Vaughn skis for Radar Skis, MasterCraft Boats, InTow Ropes and Handles and for love of the sport. He owns and operates the Bum Pass Water Ski Club in Virginia and welcomes skiers of all ages and abilities. Visit for more information.