Ever notice how one slalom pass – whether free skiing or on the course – can feel completely effortless, while the very next run can feel like a tug-of-war with the entire New England Patriots defensive line? Of course, on the effortless run you carve tight line turns, your ski builds angle with ease and you feel wide and slow with all the time in the world. During the tug-of-war, you’ve got slack, you’re getting pulled out of position by the boat, and everything feels fast and out of control. We all prefer to ski the smooth, effortless runs as often as possible. Want to know the secret? Your first move should be your best; the trick is all in your initial pull-out to the left side of the boat. This critical start will dictate your balance, rhythm, speed, angle and turning ability for your entire run.
The primary objective in slalom is acceleration across the course, or lake if you are free skiing. The faster you can get through the wakes, the more time you will have to make your next turn. Your initial pull-out will make or break your ability to achieve the acceleration you’ll need for a smooth turn.
Karen Truelove pulls out using the baseball grip (for right-foot-forward skiers, the left palm is up, and vice versa for lefties). She pulls out this way so that there is less movement when she comes up into her glide, as her hands are already set in the position she will continue to ski in. Notice that she doesn’t fight directly against the boat with her arms, but rather uses her legs to pull out. To get the acceleration she needs, Karen weights her front foot more or less depending on the conditions. For example, in a strong head wind, she stays “sunk” into her front foot a little longer than normal. She also slightly weights the left edge of the ski so that the ski tip moves naturally out and away from the wake. Karen’s key is to continue to stay balanced over her front foot, as she does not want to fall away from the boat and end up leaning over with her upper body.
Wade Cox makes his initial pull-out with both palms down (he does caution that this technique should be used almost exclusively for right-foot-forward skiers). Wade explains that it is easier to keep his left bicep straight and relaxed with palms down. Wade offers up a test. He says to hook your five-foot handle extension up to the tow pylon in your boat. Put your feet against the engine box, leverage and then bend your elbows. You’ll immediately notice that you’ve pulled yourself up and over your ski. Typically, skiers who stand up on top of their skis like this bounce through the wakes and get pulled off edge. Relaxed arms on the pull-out will not only help keep your shoulders level, but it will enable you to hold the leverage position on your cut back through the wakes. Holding this position will also let you release your ski as opposed to getting pulled up on top of it and feeling stuck to the water.
The initial movements Karen makes for her pull-out determine how much speed she has for her glide. She says, “Proper front-foot pressure on the pull-out not only allows me to load the ski quickly and get released up on the side of the boat, but it also creates less movement, as I am already standing in a balanced position on the ski when I start to glide. I don’t feel the need to rock back and forth in order to control my speed.” By edging out slightly on the left edge of the ski in the glide, Karen can keep the line taut throughout the glide and have a larger window of opportunity for when she can turn in and make a controlled first cut through the wakes. This combination gives her the consistency that she is looking for.
Geraldine Jamin stands with her head directly over her feet. Notice how level she keeps her shoulders and how her chest is pointing straight down the lake. The handle is also relatively low. In the glide, Geraldine wants her ski’s speed to match the speed of the boat. If she starts to slow down too much, her ski will sink into the water and the boat, which is moving away from her, will start to pull her. The more the boat pulls her prior to Geraldine turning her ski in, the more difficult it is to create angle. Without angle, she can’t build the acceleration necessary to ski across the lake. Conversely, it is typical for skiers who feel too fast on the glide to lean back onto their back foot. Once your head goes behind your feet on the glide, you will turn in with your shoulders. This too will result in the boat pulling you too hard too soon, causing you to get pulled out of position into the wakes.
In the very last moment of her glide as Natalie Hamrick prepares to turn in, she seeks a taut rope and a wide position on the side of the boat. As you can see, Natalie is trying to go outside, or away from the boat and handle, at the end of her glide. A taut rope will give Natalie a solid feel and will allow her to pick the exact point where she wants to turn. This wide position will also permit Natalie to start her turn-in with her ski tip first, then her hips and finally her shoulders. Setting the cut from the widest point on one side of the boat with the ski tip first will allow Natalie to ski to the widest point on the other side. This width on the second side is what makes slalom skiers feel slow and in control.
Unfortunately, if Natalie were to turn in after her initial pull-out with a loose rope, the ski tip would not turn in first, but her shoulders would. The end result will find her, or any skier, in a leaning position rather than a leveraged position. In a leaning position, the shoulders don’t stay level, and the body isn’t compact. In a leveraged position, the shoulders are level, as Natalie’s are here, and the body is compact and close to the handle. The only thing Natalie has to do now is maintain this efficient position through the wakes and into the first turn.
Wade explains that the easiest way to initiate the turn-in after your initial pull-out is with the lower body. Even at the final instant of the glide, he’s still standing tall and over his ski with his shoulders level to the water. His knees are bent forward, and his arms are very relaxed. When he decides he’s ready to turn, Wade makes a weight shift with his hips inward. He keeps his shoulders up and level as his hips drop to the inside, and Wade does everything in his power to keep his ski moving with the speed that he generated on his pull-out and glide. “I don’t want to start loading the rope or compressing downward at all until my ski has finished turning,” Wade says. “If I start compressing while the ski is still getting around under the rope, the ski will stop its turn right at that point, and I will have to settle for the angle I created up to the time when I started compressing.”
For consistency, Wade tries to focus on his tempo. He feels his weight shift inward with his shoulders level, feels his ski turning under the line and then compresses downward. If he can do these three things before the boat starts pulling him, Wade knows that his first slalom turn on the right side of the boat will be smooth and effortless. Essentially, he will just ride the acceleration he created through his turn and back around to the handle.
The One-Handed Gate
• Similar to the skiers running the two-handed pull-out, slalomers using the one-handed gate also keep their left arm very straight and relaxed on the pull-out. Like Karen Truelove, Chris Rossi is weighting his front foot to pull out as his body is falling forward in the direction he is wanting to travel.
• Standing up tall and keeping his head directly over his feet, Chris smoothly drops his outside hand off the line. The handle stays low and remains slightly in front of him. Chris may be seeing the gates with his peripheral vision, but his hips, chest and shoulders remain facing down the lake.
• Obviously the move is more extreme, but Chris Rossi has
skied himself outside the line and away from the boat and handle to create a taut line just like Geraldine Jamin on her two-handed gate. Chris’ shoulders are still level, and his chest is still pointing straight down the lake. His knees are relaxed and bent forward.
• Chris initiates the turn from his lower body up. His right hip is now weight shifting to the inside, but notice that his head is still directly over his feet. Chris’ shoulders are still level, and his chest is still pointing down the 2, 4, 6 buoy line. Although the rope is taut, it is not yet loaded.
• The ski tip is moving back under the line because of the speed Chris generated from the initial pull-out. Notice that he isn’t reaching out to grab for the handle to initiate the turn, but rather continues to drop his hip to the inside. This allows his shoulders to remain down course.
• Only at the completion of the turn does Chris put his free hand back on the handle. Even now that he is moving into the first wake, his head and eyes are still looking down the lake. There is virtually no load from the rope pulling on Chris yet.
• Chris is now getting compact. His body is extremely close to the handle. Similar to the pull-out, his arms are relaxed, and he is not fighting against the pull of the boat. He is simply holding, or maintaining, the position he skied himself into out of the glide.
• Chris feels the hardest load right into the first wake. He is leveraging against the boat but not leaning. He is trying to keep his shoulders as level as possible. His arms are relaxed, and he is absorbing the pull with his legs. He’s not, however, going so low that he is off balance or uncomfortable. With this position, he’s sure to rip off a big first turn.