Making Waves

FIRST PLACE IN SECONDS Cory Pickos, owner of Pickos Ski and Wakeboard School and champion trick skier, holds the record at an amazing 22 tricks performed in 20 seconds. Photo by Scott Holstein.
Making WavesSki School Trains Beginners As Well As World-Class Athletes

By Joyce Owen

While many visitors to the Emerald Coast might schedule a tee time, those in the know also reserve a ski time.

Just like the dozens of golf courses here that provide start times throughout the day, Cory Pickos, owner of Pickos Ski and Wakeboard School, keeps both of his private lakes busy with skiing runs available every 15 minutes.

And though the school, with its specialized training, attracts international skiers to Northwest Florida, many locals are unaware that a world-class ski school run by a world champion tricks skier is located in Santa Rosa Beach.

Pickos’ deep tan and sun-streaked hair are indications of the long days he spends on the water, skiing and training others. One of his students, Haywood McDonald, says, “A huge draw for me was that Cory gets in the boat all the time. Whether it is a little kid’s first time or one of the best skiers in the world, he is there.”

Pickos’ clients learn about his school in different ways. Competitive-level water skiers hoping to improve their skills already know him through tournaments in which he and his students compete. Those who want to learn to ski, and intermediate skiers just getting into competition, often check out Pickos and his school on the Internet. And parents who enjoy skiing often bring their children to his school for their first lessons on skis. The two manmade freshwater lakes off Sugar Lane, just south of U.S. Highway 98 in Walton County, provide the perfect site for a school that offers basic skills for beginners and intense instruction for high-end competitive athletes.

“We teach locals and visitors,” Pickos says. “We encourage them to call and book a ski time. We are open daily during the spring and summer season. Walk-ins are always welcome.”

An explanation on the school’s Web site provides an overview of the program and its goals: “We specialize in water-skiing and wakeboarding, and our main goal is to provide you with the very best in instruction and to give you a world-class water-ski/wakeboard experience. Whether you are a beginner or an aspiring skier trying to make the pro tour, you will enjoy your stay at the Pickos Ski and Wakeboard School. We are very serious about our sport, your improvement, and having fun.”

The original owner of the property specifically designed the long, narrow lakes with a white sand bottom and shoreline for water skiing and wakeboarding. Pickos leased the lakes when he first opened the school and remembers it seemed as if he had settled in the middle of nowhere. An aerial photo at his home shows the lakes when there were few houses and little else near the school.

By the time Pickos purchased the lakes several years later, a subdivision was under construction nearby. Although the lakes are 100 percent owned by the Pickos family, the homeowners in the neighborhood are obviously interested in water sports. Driving down Jump Street and Slalom Way, many of the homes that line the lakes have boats in the yard.

Today the school is no longer so isolated. Thanks to continued growth in the area, Sandestin — with shopping, restaurants and entertainment options — is only four miles away. County Road 30-A, with its unique communities, is easily accessible. South Walton now has its own hospital.

In the early years of the program, students who lived at the school had to travel to Niceville or Freeport to attend high school. Now, a new high school just four miles east offers students the convenience of studying close by.

Pickos and his wife, Rose, founded the ski school, which has created world-class water skiers, including their own children, Adam and Alexis, and world champions Javier Julio, Caroline Hensley and Regina Jaquess.

“I’m producing skiers that bring home gold medals,” Cory Pickos says.

While Rose Pickos skis occasionally, she is the one who keeps the business going. Her husband is on the boat every day during the season, and she manages the day-to-day operations that are necessary to successfully run the day camps, summer camps and tournaments that are held each year.

“I handle everything,” Rose Pickos says. “I cook and clean, yes, but I handle the reservations and travel arrangements for students. I organize and run the tournaments.”

Students and their families are encouraged to rent a condo or home near the ski school. However, there is a camp house with about 22 bunks for students who come for weekly and monthly training camps.

Some Students Become Like Family
The Pickoses agree that one of the best aspects of the school has been watching the kids they train as they grow up. They believe the students mature not only through the training but through the exposure they get during competition. Traveling to tournaments around the world and learning to deal with judges and the media has given their kids a level of composure that is evident during an interview with one of the students at the school.

Sixteen-year-old Haywood McDonald, from Fayetteville, N.C., has been living at the ski school for three years. McDonald learned about the school when he skied against Adam Pickos. He came to the school for training and decided to stay.

“I was supposed to go home after the first year,” he says. “Dad says I’m not missing things up there. Mom wishes I’d call home more, but I’ve become part of the family here. It’s a great family environment.”

 The Pickoses help full-time students get settled; for younger trainees, that frequently includes enrolling them in public school and monitoring their progress.

“At first, they kept up with my schoolwork, until I proved myself,” McDonald  says.

He attends South Walton High School and lives in the school’s camp house, which is located right on one of the ski lakes. During the off-season, McDonald is the only one living at the camp house, but he is frequently at the Pickoses’ home, especially at mealtime.

McDonald comes from a family of skiers. His father was a competitive water skier and his sister, Olivia, is a champion in her own right — a member of the U.S. 17 to 20 Water Ski Team.

McDonald began skiing at 2 years old when a personal watercraft pulled him out at the beach. His family leases a lake in North Carolina, but for much of the year it is too cold for someone who competes at his level to train, he says. Originally, McDonald considered going to a ski school in Orlando, but he liked it better in South Walton because of the close proximity to the beach, as well as the fact that “this is the best lake I’ve ever skied on.”

In addition, “Cory is one of the best tricks skiers and one of the best coaches in the world,” McDonald says.

The young man admits that another reason his family chose this school is that Pickos is the primary instructor. As a tricks skier, learning from Pickos has been helpful to McDonald’s success. And to indicate how he has benefited from the experience, the nine-time national champion cites some of his own accomplishments.

“In the first year of training, I gained 25 feet in my jump,” he says. “If you are a competitive water skier, this is the place to be. But it is also a good place to learn how to ski.”

At the age of 16, McDonald is one of the top junior water ski athletes in the country and was an alternate on the 2008 U.S. Junior Water Ski Team. He has been selected as a member of the 2009 National Junior Water Ski Team based on his performance during the 2008 tournament season.

Youngest Skier on the World Team
“Since age 4, it’s all I’ve ever done. It’s been a great career,” says Cory Pickos, now 45 years old. He’s a 26-time U.S. tricks record holder and winner of 24 world tricks records.

Pickos’ first record was to become the youngest person ever to make the world team.

He was born in Kenosha, Wis. That was not the best place to hone his skills as a water skier. So at age 13, his family moved to Winter Haven, Fla., to allow him to train year-round.

As a champion tricks skier, he still holds the record — an amazing 22 tricks completed in 20 seconds.

But Pickos is more than a skier; he also is a talented instructor who specializes in training juniors and under-21 skiers for competition.

“Skiing at the competitive level requires extremely technical training,” he says. “You have to be good at what you do. I’m a very hands-on instructor; it’s how I built my business.”

When he was still at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Fla., Pickos had a lease on a lake where he ran his first ski school. It was in a public park, and folks decided they didn’t want a ski school there, so he searched for another location.

Pickos knew the owner of the Santa Rosa Beach lakes from tournaments and had heard that he was looking to sell. Pickos now has been running the ski school for 16 years. It remains the only school of its type in the area. Although he would prefer slightly warmer winter weather like the ski schools further south, he plans to stay put, and to compete, for a few more years.

Although Pickos realizes his time as a competitive skier will end one day, he plans to continue skiing.

“Skiing is good exercise,” he says, “and it helps keep me fit.”

For more information, visit, call (850) 267-3988 or send an e-mail to

Water Skiing Techniques

Tricks: The skier performs two 20-second routines of tricks that each have an assigned point value. Some of the tricks include wake flips and multiple turns performed with the towrope attached to the skier’s foot.

Slalom: The skier negotiates a zigzag course of six buoys. The boat speed is increased until the maximum speed for competition is reached. Then the rope is shortened in pre-measured lengths. The winner is the skier who rounds the most buoys without a miss or fall.

Jumping: The object is distance.

June 13–14
Schedule a ski time or come out to watch the pros: Private water ski or wakeboard lessons, $50
Cory Pickos Superstars Tournament