Mike Budreau flits across the water with an ease that masks the difficulty of the dance.
Budreau rides a single waterski on a slalom course, carving turns so sharply that his hip nearly grazes the water. At each buoy, he slows down to negotiate the turn, then gains enough speed to zip across the towboat's wake in time to make the next turn.
The boat makes a steady 36 mph down the middle of the course. To keep up, Budreau's going about 55 mph when he zigs across the wake between turns.
"Laying your body over and carving through the turns is exhilarating," he says later, when he's piloting the boat while his wife, Kim, makes a few passes through the six-buoy course.
"It's pretty physically demanding," he says. "It's not like snow skiing, where you can do it all day."
Slalom skiers are about as close to your typical weekend waterskier as downhill racers are to bunny slope skiers.
Slalom skiers spend years on the water developing the strength and balance to make what they do look easy. Mike Budreau, 35, has been waterskiing since he was 17; Kim, 34, has been on the water 11 years.
They ski four or five times a week during the summer.
"It's practice, practice, practice," says Mike, a detective sergeant with the Medford Police Department, during a practice session last week. "The more you ski the better you're gonna get."
They also travel to regional competitions sponsored by the American Waterski Association.
"We do 10 to 15 tournaments a year," he says. "It really occupies lots of our weekends most of the summer. We win a few tournaments, but we don't win every time because there are a lot of good skiers out there."
Before they can learn the art of the turn, slalom skiers have to master riding one ski. That alone can be challenging, says Kim, who started skiing when she met Mike.
"It took me a long time just to learn how to get up," says Kim, who became an MPD sergeant this week.
To turn, slalom skiers let up on the towrope to slow down and put the ski on edge, much like a snow skier. Grasping the rope with their inside arm, they carve the turn, leaning around the buoy as the ski sweeps through an arc.
"You really have to keep your body in one straight line" through the turn, Kim says.
Leaving the turn, the skier pulls back on the rope to pick up speed and whip across the wake into the next turn.
"We get strong arms and shoulders," she says. "We don't have to work out."
"There's a lot of speed change," Mike explains. "You've almost got to be a speed freak to enjoy this sport."
Crossing the rough water in the waves behind the boat adds another factor to the equation, Kim says. "The wake's a big challenge for me. I always have to concentrate."
When skiers master the basic turn, they increase the difficulty by gradually increasing the speed of the towboat to a maximum of 36 mph for men, 34 for women. Competition ski boats are equipped with computers that compensate for the weight of passengers in the boat to maintain a constant speed through the length of the six-buoy course.
Once a skier can cover the course at top speed, the 75-foot towrope is shortened a few feet at a time.
"You start with a slow speed and a long rope," Mike says. "You can't shorten the line until you get the highest speed."
Skiers talk of "feet off" the rope rather than how long the rope actually is. Top professionals cover the course with a tow rope that's "41 off" — a mere 34 feet long.
"As the rope gets shorter, it becomes more and more demanding to get your ski around the buoy," Mike says. "You've got to stretch a little more each time.
"The course requires you to do things in a shorter and shorter amount of time, and that's where the challenge is," he says. "You've got to get your ski to change edges rather quickly. It's hard to turn really tight. Very small things will cause you to mess up."
Of course skiers go down, but by the time they learn to slalom, they've learned to fall, too.
"Once you know something is going awry, you tuck and roll," Mike says.
The day-to-day stress of a police officer's job disappears on the slalom course, Mike says. "I don't think about anything but skiing when I'm in the water. My mind is completely free."
Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org.