The 28-time Olympic medalist spoke about what he learned in preparation for his race against a Great White for this year's Shark Week.
by Dan Snierson
To kick off the 29th edition of Shark Week, Discovery will cut to the chase. And that chase is Michael Phelps racing a Great White shark! Who will emerge with bragging rights? Can sharks brag? Those are just two of the many questions that will be answered in Phelps vs. Shark: Great Gold vs. Great White (July 23, 8 p.m. ET/PT). Absolutely, the odds are stacked against Phelps. Great Whites are the fearsome predators of the sea that can swim up to 10 times faster than humans. But this is no ordinary human that is being tossed into the water: Phelps is the most decorated swimmer of all-time — a 28-time Olympic medalist. Before you tune in to see what happens when the Greatest Swimmer goes after a Great White, read what Phelps had to say about this highly unusual race. [For the full Shark Week schedule, click here.]
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: They ask if you’d be interested in racing a Great White, and your first reaction is…?
MICHAEL PHELPS: The first thing that came to my mind is I wanted to make sure the safety aspect of it was there. That was the only way I was going to do it. And it was there. Being able to have the amount of divers that we were able to have in the water and knowing that I was safe was the biggest thing. But obviously, it’s an opportunity that you don’t get very often — to race a Great White. So I said for sure I would do it. For me, sharks have always been something that have been extremely fascinating, so [this was a] chance to learn about more about the different species in the world. I mean, before Shark Week, the only shark I’d really ever been close to was a whale shark when I was free-diving in the Maldives. So I was like, “Okay, let’s just have fun with this and see what happens.” And sure enough, I was able to learn a lot more about wildlife and sharks. Being able to become almost face-to-face with some of the largest predators and animals that we could find is something that was exciting and just an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. It’s been a bucket list item for me for years.
I’m just double-checking some stats here. The Great White you’re racing — how many Olympic Gold medals does it have?
I think I’ve got a couple more than he does. [Laughs.]
So you can swim 5, 6 miles per hour, max, and Great Whites go up to 25 miles per hour? What did you learn when you were researching this race?
I know in a race I have reached a little over 5 miles an hour, and a white can swim up to 25 miles an hour, and their cruising speed is 6 to 6. A hammerhead can reach up to 12 to 14, and the average cruising speed is 3 to 4. Being in the water and seeing how fast they can go in a straight line over an extended period of time was intriguing to me. I was like, “Yeah, sure, why not? Let’s see who would win a race.” It’s hard for me to race something that has the speed that they have, and how fast they can turn on a dime is something that’s truly incredible, especially with the size of these animals. I got in and did my best, and you guys are going to have to see what the outcome is. But I think it’s just interesting more for me to learn and to teach people about what sharks can do, and learn what to do and what not to do around sharks.
How seriously did you take the race? Did you do any specific training for this?
Obviously, at that point, it was pretty mental just trying to overcome some of the other obstacles that we had in our way. So I was given a monofin to try to give myself more speed through the water and try to be a little bit quicker through certain things. But it’s challenging to handicap a race like that, and I think we did our best to try to make it as close as we could — and try to have other people to have an understanding just how powerful and how fast these animals are.
You’re in the open water but not actually competing side-by-side against the shark. But were you two at least racing at the same time? And how else did you guys try to recreate the environment to even the competition?
The only thing I can say is we weren’t in a pool. We were in open water. We were very safe. We had about 15 safety divers around. For me, the biggest thing was just trying to stay warm; that was something that was extremely challenging, just because the water is 55 degrees. It’s something that a shark can survive in, and a human really can’t survive in water like that.
How far is the distance that you’ll be racing?
We raced 100 meters. It’s hard when you have low visibility, and we did set up a lane line to make it look like there was a pool, but it is challenging to see straight and see where you’re going in water like that. It was difficult, but it was a fun experience that I’ll never forget — and hopefully will have that chance again.
I know that you can’t reveal the winner, but what can you hint about the results of the race? Was it closer than you thought?
It goes back to how incredible it is to see an animal of that size move as fast as they do. Seeing the burst of a 5,000-pound Great White that can go up to 25 miles an hour is just mind-blowing. I mean, you think about going 25 miles an hour in your car, and thinking about a 5,000-pound animal going that fast, breaching the surface, is just remarkable.
Anything else you learned about Great Whites from this race?
There aren’t too many times where a Great White is swimming in a straight line. How they really move is from deep down in the water, and they’re really able to force themselves to the surface to try to get food. The reason why we do have shark attacks is we’re flailing around on the surface, which makes us look like a seal. So when a shark is going after a seal and they see a human being flapping around on the surface, they’re obviously going to come and check it out. It’s interesting to watch their surprise attack, and I’d love to be able to sit on the bottom and see how Great Whites move and how they just swim around.
Is there any other sea creature that you’d like to race?
I don’t know if I’d like to race, but I’d like to be in the water with more whales. We have 30-meter blue whales out there, and a friend of mine did some research on Orcas and how Orcas are just like big teddy bears, and all they want to do is play around and have fun. I think seeing them in person would be a true treat. I’ve been around water my whole life, and [given] the fact that [the Earth is] covered by more than 70 percent water, I would like to spend more time in the water to learn more about what other wildlife we have. Hopefully, I’m just breaking the surface on seeing different animals.
In a second Shark Week special (July 30’s Shark School with Michael Phelps, which seeks to dispel myths about sharks), you go to Shark School and do some cage diving — and you venture outside of the cage. What was your level of fear?
I started in the cage. And watching these sharks just swim around me, and they weren’t really doing much, I was like, “All right, I think I’m ready to get out of the cage. Let’s get out and see what these guys and girls are like head-to-head and close up.” I was excited to get out, and I started swimming around with these guys. It was incredible. It was way better than I could ever imagine, and I hope to have this opportunity where I can see more and more sharks in the wild. There are over 500 species in the world, and I’ve only seen 10 of them, so we have a lot more on the to-do list, and hopefully, we can start knocking out some more bucket list items.
Even though you’re retired, you get asked a lot about competing the 2020 Olympics. You’ve recently said that it doesn’t look good, but then you also wondered if you might get that itch again. So, can you give us a percentage chance that you might compete in Tokyo?
Ummm, I don’t know… 1 percent? 2 percent? [Laughs.] Very minimal. I wanted to retire on my own terms and never have a what-if, and I’m to that point where I’m very content with everything that’s going on. Being able to welcome our amazing son into the world and to be happy, I can’t ask for anything more. Being able to look back at my career and say I’ve done everything I’m dreamt of — the next thing is trying to wrap my head around winning 28 Olympic medals. That’s something that is unthinkable, but I was able to achieve my lifetime dream and goal to change the sport of swimming. I wanted to become the greatest athlete that I could be, and hopefully the greatest swimmer ever, and I’ve come a long way. And even though I am out of the pool and I’m not competing anymore, I’ll still involved in the sport — and still involved with water.