Most slalom skiers would give their big toe to pick up six more buoys by Christmas, let alone to do it by Saturday afternoon. But it can happen.
I've seen it at my ski school in Acapulco. A novice or intermediate skier working in the 20-34 mph range comes in with some raw mechanics and a hunger to learn and a week later goes home with another loop under his or her belt. To prove this slalom miracle, we recently kept tabs on three students. Their skill levels ranged from novice to expert, and their expectations differed. In the end, one student would record a personal best, another student would be more than six buoys to the good in 72 hours and the third would squeeze in six buoys with a little overtime.
Cheryl: During those cold Canadian winters, Cheryl must spend all her time in the gym. She looks very strong for a 105-pound skier. On her first set she looks a little stiff. Many strong people who try too hard and aren't relaxed look like this.
To get Cheryl to relax, we'll work with her on technique for the first few days, specifically, to keep her arms in to her side more and to extend her arms when she leans. By the end of the week, she might be ready for the slalom course.
Mike: This guy is a better skier than he thinks. He had great lean through the wake, but, was pulling his brains out and getting nowhere. It looked like he had a brake on his ski. Turns out there's no wing on his fin.
We also discover his fin is 2.62 inches deep. This is deeper than any pro skier and creates a lot of drag. It was time for him to trade in his older Duvall ski, it was too soft and caused a funny bounce at the wakes. Mike's ski had broken down under his 220-lb. weight and the force of his skiing style. We ordered him a new 68-inch Goode, but it will take a few days to arrive. In the meantime, we'll shallow his fin to 2.52 inches and move his bindings back a notch. It makes an immediate difference.
Tom: How can Tom even ski on this 15-year-old HO with the fin .55 inches in from the tail and 2.72 inches deep? He can barely turn his ski. We'll get him on a new HO CDX for his second set.
Now, about Tom's feet: Not only are they too far apart, but his front leg is very stiff. His poor footing is throwing off his balance.
With his feet closer together, and riding a new CDX, Tom is able to shadow the entrance gates and run 28 mph. He beat his personal best by a full six buoys on his first day! Tomorrow, we'll teach him how to run through the entrance gates.
Cheryl: Cheryl continues to work on wake crossings and just relaxing. But she's still stiff in the knees and tends to bounce over the wake.
To help Cheryl we slow the boat to around 26 mph. At this speed, wakes are larger and will require Cheryl to ski with knees forward and shoulders back which will increase flexibility, especially at the first wake. Tomorrow, Cheryl will be ready to try the slalom course. We'll start her on number one and try for two or three buoys.
Mike: Hey, Mike is leaning longer on his edge and not bouncing at the wakes as much as yesterday. He looks pretty good, but he's gradually drifting a few feet farther down course with each buoy. This may have something to do with his weight and his soft ski. We'll see what happens when his new skis get here.
Tom: Another personal best for Tom today. After learning the entrance gates, he runs three passes in a row, at 27 mph, from gate to gate. Next, we get him working on wider gates so he can start getting off one ball better.
Cheryl: This is just the type of skier who does really well by skiing the slalom course at very slow speeds to start. I don't try this method on someone unless I'm sure the skier is strong. Cheryl begins at 24 mph, but she's still flying past the buoys. So we slow it down to 20.5 mph, and she starts rounding the buoys.
It's important to learn to keep good body position while skiing at slow speeds, or you'll sink too low in the water. (I've been known to run 16 mph at 22 off, but it's a very wet experience.) Cheryl, at 105 pounds, manages to stay pretty dry by keeping her hips up just enough to stay ahead of the spray coming up from her ski. On the first try, she gets around buoy number three. Looks like Cheryl has a very good chance of getting all six buoys by Saturday.
Mike: Normally, day three is when skiers are the sorest and no one wants to ski first. But Mike lives in Southern California and has been able to ski regularly. If anything, we have to keep him from skiing too much and burning out.
Mike spent the day working on wider approaches into the buoys. His turns were coming much easier and he was looking smoother on each pass.
Tom: It's all about pace with Tom. He's taking only two rides a day. On his second ride today, he manages to pick up six buoys and runs the course from gate to gate at 28 mph for a new personal best.
Trying to score Tom's improvement is a challenge. Do we call his first legal 27-mph pass an improvement of six buoys? If so, then Tom has picked up 12 buoys in three days.
Cheryl: Thanks to Cheryl's strength, she's been able to make steady progress. Today she's in the process of picking up buoy number four.
Learning the course has involved a lot of trial and error for Cheryl. Now she knows if she leans too long and generates too much speed, she'll be wide at the buoy. But if she short-pulls (by not leaning long enough), she'll come into the buoy too narrowly, and won't be able to make a tight turn.
Mike: Mike makes four balls at 32 off. His personal best is six at 32 off, so he has a good chance of bettering that. I suggest we shorten Mike's rope and have him try a couple of buoys at 35 off.
Tom: We've got Tom trying different skis today. He takes one set on the Goode and two sets on the HO. He's getting used to each ski, so he doesn't try 29 mph today. I really think he's in for a big surprise tomorrow.
Cheryl: The course is a blast for Cheryl, but she still needs to go wider at the one ball. To do this, we have her ski very wide right before the one ball, then have her kill her speed at just the right moment. This requires a lot of practice, along with good feedback from a coach who understands this technique.
Mike: Mike is still having a problem being too open to the boat on his offside lean. This happens time and again. On his last ride of the day, I suggest he try changing his grip to allow his down (or back) arm to be tucked in closer to his body. This should allow him to rotate a little more.
The change results in a better offside with more rotation. Mike looks like a million bucks. It's the best I've ever seen anyone on a first pass with a changed grip.
Tom: What a difference a ski makes. Tom runs a new personal best, five buoys at 29 mph, on the HO CDX. He's making great progress, but he's not going to continue at this incredible pace unless his fundamentals continue to improve as well. We still need to throw in some open-water skiing, but we're having too much fun in the course right now.
Cheryl: It's the last day, and Cheryl wants those six buoys more than anything in her life. She's near exhaustion but is oh-so-close to making the course, coming just inside the six ball.
If she had just a little more energy left for one more slalom set, she could make the six buoys in six days. But it isn't going to happen today. Her strength is completely sapped. Still, those five buoys are more than she expected. That's why she's grinning from ear to ear.
Mike: We were hoping to get Mike's new Goode on Friday, but it looks like he'll have to wait another day. This is his second da
y using the new grip. (Mike is left foot forward with his left palm up, and we changed it to his right palm up.) I don't do this with everyone, but in this case it was very rewarding. I don't expect Mike to pick up six buoys until he has that new ski, but he should run a personal best before he's done.
Tom: Tom's trying like crazy to run a pass at 29 mph. He runs four at 29 mph on the Goode and is able to ski three long sets on this final day. He takes what seems like about 16 passes on his last set to try to complete that 29-mph pass. He's an animal on the water but finally has to call it quits because his arms are about to fall off. It won't happen today, but he's a happy camper.
Due to an unusual chain of events (one of our drivers had to stay on an extra day because of a delayed flight), Cheryl is back on the water at 9:30 for a bonus round.
Fully charged, she skis two solid passes. Then, on her third, she makes all six buoys – on video.
Cheryl becomes proof positive. Six buoys in six – and a quarter – days. She isn't the only one to do it, just the latest.