USA Water Ski & Wake Sports

Starting The Season

Corey Vaughn slalom skiing


Note: This article first appeared in the Spring 2022 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


It is finally here! A new ski season has arrived with all the promise and potential that comes with it. If you are like most people I know, you have been tapping your foot through the long winter for this very moment. I have been a seasonal skier my whole life, but only in recent years have I truly apprehended the lessons that the early season has to offer.

If you are 12 years old or younger, you can probably just jump back on your ski and trust that your youthful adaptability will set you on a course of progress from day one. For everyone else, employ some strategy and “work” smarter if real progress is your goal. Here are six lessons I’ve learned from more than 30 years as a seasonal skier.

Start Slow

Every year, those first few sets feel extremely fast. What was an easy opener at the end of last season, now feels like warp speed. You’ll likely feel narrow and fast and have to deal with the resulting slack rope if you don’t adjust your game plan. Get the ego out of the way and slow the boat down. Depending on your level of experience, you may need to slow down anywhere between two and five miles per hour. Your goal should be to run passes with control, rhythm, and good form. It’s normal for your “usual” opener to feel crazy hard at first. Don’t fret; it will come back. It will come back faster if you start by running passes that feel smooth, early, and wide.

Similarly, don’t be in a rush to return to your prior season’s best. Take your time and lay a broad foundation with your body mechanics and rhythm. If you hurry toward your personal best, you are going to build your skills like scaffolding. Scaffolding can go high, but the higher it goes the wobblier and more unstable it becomes. In the middle of the season, when you attempt to really launch off of this scaffolding, it will collapse and you will find yourself in a slump, trying to figure out which pieces to rebuild first. Instead, construct a pyramid. The broader you build the base, the higher the natural peak can be. If you stay true to your construction, you can attain your highest peak ever, with little to no backsliding over the season. As a frame of reference, I assume that it will be a full two months before I am in striking range of my prior year’s best.

Equipment Change

If you know that you are due for a major equipment upgrade, like a new ski and/or boots, now is the time. You are going to be rusty anyway and there is a whole lot of neurology that has to rewire between your feed and your brain. You can kill two birds with one stone by making the adjustment to new gear, while you are going through the early season growing pains. If you can ski with a coach, seize it. A coach can help dial in your setup, while keeping you accountable to improving your technique. I highly recommend starting the season with new gloves, a fresh rope and possibly a new handle. Not only will you get adjusted to these touch points while you are getting your bearings, but it’s also a matter of safety. I have experienced and witnessed too many rope breaks or glove blowouts that can cause injury. It’s just not worth the risk with the whole season waiting for you.

Habit Change

There is always some element of technique stopping you from breaking through to that next level. You may even be keenly aware of what it is after it dogged you last season. Now is the time to chart a course to overcome that barrier. If you wait until you are “skiing pretty well,” chances are you have re-ingrained most of your habits and will now have to decide if you are willing to take a step back to break them or just keep applying band-aids. Most of us don’t like taking a step back and therefore just continue trying to use our strong skills to compensate for whatever is lacking. If you just want to ski for the joy of it and have no concerns about increasing buoy count, you can probably stop reading now. I don’t know many skiers like that, and I am making a personal commitment this year to use my early season sets to address my flaws and weak points. I encourage you to join me and hope we find ourselves gratified come July.

Set Structure

If you have been reading my articles, you know I’m a big fan of using “recreational mode” on the cruise control and trainer loops in the rope to vary the speed and rope length. The early season is probably the most crucial time to incorporate this tactic. The key is to meet yourself where you are. Two miles per hour increments and full rope length changes are huge jumps in difficulty. Find rope length and speed combinations that present a challenge and arouse your focus yet allow you to run passes with rhythm and control. If you are in “survival mode” for most of the pass, you need to back it down so you can work on executing your keys.

Back-to-back passes are great to implement early in the season for consistency. Always try to make the second pass better than the first when repeating a pass. You also need conditioning at this time of year. Doing a “ladder set” is another good strategy. A ladder means going up in difficulty and then coming back down. For my early season practice, that’s usually the following sequence – 32 off, 35, 38, 38, 35, 32. You can tailor this approach to your level and employ unconventional speeds/lengths to make sure you are running every pass. Running every pass is my final tip in this section. You will get so much more from completing 6 buoys every time in the early season than struggling, falling, and chasing buoys. As a target, you may try running 100 passes in a row.

Cold Water

I’m not sure if I’m stubborn or stupid, but this lesson took a long time to get through my head.  I hope I can save some of you from the frustration it caused me. Skiing on cold water IS. NOT. EASY. Until your water temperature has eclipsed 75 degrees, your ski is not going to perform optimally. The same is true for your body.

If you went to Florida for a week of skiing in the winter, don’t expect equal progress in your first week of the season at home. I really wish someone told me that years ago. It would have spared so much frustration. Your buoy count and agility on cold water is not going to rival how you felt when you skied somewhere warm this winter. That’s okay. Give it time. Take the long road, stay disciplined and the results will come.

Listen to Your Body

Your nervous system has not experienced this sort of stress in months. Even if you have been crushing it in the gym, that first week of skiing is going to make you sore and fatigued. I revel in the feeling of those sore ski muscles. I also know when it’s time to let them recover so my next set can be powerful and focused. Remember that you have all season ahead of you. It’s not worth it to tweak your back, wrench your shoulder or snap your neck right out of the gate. Your hands are a good guide if you are masking your soreness with Advil. Enjoy rebuilding those calluses. Don’t let your eagerness turn into a crater on your palm. This is another reason that fresh gloves are a good call to start the season. Your spray leg is going to talk to you, too. Just tell that voice to shut up. You could wear a spray leg, but you can be sure that somebody is going to make fun of you to your face or behind your back if you do.

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.