USA Water Ski & Wake Sports

Running The Slalom Course For The First Time

Note: This article first appeared in the Winter 2020 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


Running The Slalom Course For The First Time

Completing all six buoys with entry and exit gates is the greatest milestone in the sport of slalom skiing. Indeed, it is an incredible athletic feat involving balance, strength, timing, rhythm and coordination. Running the course is skiing’s equivalent of bowling a perfect game, nailing a handspring back flip, or becoming a scratch golfer.  


As a coach, witnessing a skier’s first full pass is an incredibly gratifying moment. The ecstatic smile that overtakes the skier’s face expresses a contagious and visceral joy, which can be shared by coach, driver, partner, friend or stranger. We can all agree that the world could use an added dose of joy, so let’s get more people through the course this summer.

Over the last few summers, I’ve had a growing number of students striving for this milestone. In the process of trying to help them achieve their goal, I have developed a systematic protocol for attacking what can seem like the impossible. Moreover, I’ve noticed that most skiers’ do-it-yourself attempts are almost the exact opposite of what I recommend. Whether you are hoping to master the course yourself or just share in that incredible joy as a coach or ski partner, follow this guide to accelerate the progression.


Free Skiing


The fundamentals absolutely start outside the course. Before letting the buoys control your mind like a high school romance, let’s make sure a few fundamental skills are in place:


1) Pendulum-Like Rhythm


- Ideal: Rhythm is the most important skill for attempting the course. A skier must be able to accelerate from the widest point of the turn across the wakes and then begin transitioning to the next turn, as momentum carries the skier outward. 


- Problem: Slowing down at the first wake and then cutting again after the wakes to get wide is the most common mistake and will not work in the course. 


- Fact: Rhythm is also the cornerstone of solid body position and one-handed turns. One-handed turns are not necessary to run the course but can be a very helpful tool. One-handed turns are best learned and ingrained into habit free skiing. 


2) Body Position


- Ideal: Our body is the conduit between the power source (the boat) and our primary tool (the ski). To harness the boat’s power effectively, our body must act like a lever - receiving the boat’s pull through the shoulders, then transferring that power down the body through the torso, hips and legs to the feet and ski. 


- Problem: The asymmetrical stance of slalom skiing makes proper body position unnatural and different than almost all other sports. Thus, most people begin with a sort of squat or crouch with hips back, chest down and shoulders forward. This position makes our body into a hinge, rather than a lever. Consequently, much of the boat’s power gets stuck in the lower back in the form of strain, rather than passed through the body to the ski. 


- Fact: Standing straight behind the boat or even leaning away from the wakes is a good place to practice a leveraged lean, but the crucial skill of slalom skiing is cutting toward and over the wakes with this strong position. In this pursuit, rhythm is key. If you aren’t in a consistent rhythm, the wakes (and fear of the wakes) will compromise your solid stance. 
Speed: Slow Down!


You should not expect to run the slalom course at your normal free-skiing speed. The Holy Grail to running the course is the ability to generate one’s own speed from a solid lean. Although the wakes may get taller, running the course for the first time will come more quickly at a slower speed. My typical default speeds are 25.5 mph for women and 27.7 mph for men. Somewhere between 24-28 mph is the sweet spot for most adults. Kids, being lighter, commonly learn the course between 12 and 20 mph, depending upon weight.

Choose the Right Stick


More expensive does not mean more beneficial at this stage. In fact, high-end skis that are designed to help pros at the highest speeds and shortest ropes will make your task of learning the course more difficult. To learn the course, look for a wide, stable, and forgiving ski with a safe and comfortable boot and rear toe plate. 

Running The Slalom Course For The First TimeMini Course and Shadowing


So, your free skiing is rockin’. Body position, rhythm, wake crossings and one-handed turns feel dialed. You are ready to test your skills on some buoys! One attempt at the full course will probably be enough to realize that it’s WAY harder than it looks. Don’t be intimidated – Rome was not built in a day.


- Master the Mini Course: Learn to time the first buoy perfectly for an optimal start. Finish the turn at the buoy, rather than starting the turn at the ball (this is called “back-siding”). Run the mini course at various speeds and rope lengths. You will be able to stroke the mini course at 32 off before you are even close to running the full slalom course. 


- Shadowing: Also known as “spraying the buoys” is the next step after you have conquered the mini course. This drill teaches you to keep up with the six-buoy rhythm required in the full course, while riding a wider path than the mini course. Ideally, you should be able to drop in on one ball with perfect timing and then hit every buoy with your spray, trying to be as close as you can to each buoy. It is more important to be equidistant from each buoy rather than close to some but far from others. We are aiming for symmetry.

Six-Buoy Strategy


You are taking down the mini course at short-line with no problem and can easily shadow all six in the full-course. It’s time to start turning some buoys. Despite the temptation, DO NOT just start trying to run the full course from start to finish, this approach is the proverbial brick wall. Also, DO NOT attempt the entry gate until you are consistently running all 6 buoys. So, let’s break down the strategy that will get you to that point quickest. Here are six steps to get you around the six buoys:


1) Perfect the one-ball drop in. There is no substitute for getting an optimal start in the course. When the boat enters the gate, progressively pull out to the right and then stand up into a glide. As you glide, you should coast out about 5-8 feet wide of one ball. As you near the buoy, the rope should be coming tight allowing you to drop into your cut and practically brush one-ball with your boot as you begin your swing into the wakes.


2) DO NOT GO FOR TWO! It sounds counterintuitive, but we are not striving to get two-ball just yet. The next buoy we want to get is ball six. This is where all the shadowing practice pays off. Turn early at each buoy so that you stay ahead of the course and can pick up six-ball.


3) Add 5. The next buoy we want to go for is five-ball. Still shadow 2,3 and 4.


4) Now go for two! Get that perfect one-ball and pick up two. Shadow 3 and 4 and then make 5 and 6. 


5) Get either 3 or 4. You can see what’s happening now. We are working from the ends of the course to the middle. You are ready to fill in one of the middle buoys. Depending on your stance (right or left foot forward), one of these will likely be easier than the other for you. 


6) Let it Happen. Now there is just one buoy left. Stay true to the process; don’t try to force it. Keep shadowing closer and closer to the middle two boys (balls 3 and 4), alternating which one you turn and which you shadow. Then one time you will have a totally optimal start, a nearly perfect turn at two, pick up three easily and find yourself coming into four-ball wide and early. It’s happening – go with it and stay on your game until you round six. Then it’s time to celebrate!

Congratulations! You should remember this day and this feeling for the rest of your life! If you have come this far, you probably realize how deeply gratifying the practice of slalom skiing can be. Good news: there is always the next challenge. In your case now, the next challenge is the gates. Check out my “Gates 101” article for a crash course on your next step (The Water Skier – Spring 2019).

Corey Vaughn operates the Bum Pass Water Ski Club in Bumpass, Va. Find info at: or contact Corey skis for Radar, MasterCraft, InTow and for love of the sport.