Shark Week: Your Burning Michael Phelps Race Questions Answered

Mandi Bierly
Deputy Editor, Yahoo TV
Michael Phelps wearing a Lunocet swim fin and Phantom Suit to give him a competitive edge against a shark. (Photo: Discovery)

“We were in open water, but we did not have a shark literally next to me swimming.” Michael Phelps said that in every interview he did leading up to Sunday’s premiere of Phelps vs. Shark: Great Gold vs. Great White, but judging from the Twitter response, some viewers didn’t hear it. In the end, the Shark Week special was really about shark experts figuring out how to measure the speed of a great white, how they could give Phelps a “swimming chance” to come close to that (with a custom monofin and wetsuit that mimic a great white’s tail and skin), and what the result would be if you simulated a race between them (the great white won by two seconds).

To answer a few burning questions, Yahoo TV spoke with Neil Hammerschlag, a marine ecologist at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School and one of the two scientists who worked with Phelps.

“Obviously you can’t have Phelps ‘racing’ a great white in open water, because someone swimming fast away from a great white looks like prey. But as someone suggested on Twitter, was there ever any talk of building a 100-meter cage for him to swim in, or is that just ridiculous?”
“That’s a great question. I actually like the idea of the 100-meter cage. I wish I came up with that. That’s something that I would actually try. To me, nothing’s impossible,” Hammerschlag says. But no, there was never any talk of having Phelps swim head-to-head with a great white. Hammerschlag has studied great whites in South Africa for 15 years. As part of his previous research, he’d calculated the speed of a great white when it hits the water’s surface attacking its prey (roughly 25 mph, in a short burst), but no one had really asked how fast great whites swim when not breaching, or how long they can maintain that speed. That was the challenge he accepted.

“As someone else asked on Twitter, how do we know he was racing the Phelps of sharks? Do great whites have different physical capabilities?”
That’s another question Hammerschlag likes. It’s one of the things he’s been looking at in his own research across different species of sharks — how individuals differ in their speed, and if that’s based on their actual body shape. “I often use Michael as an analogy when I’m trying to teach people about some of the work I do,” he says. “I always say, ‘If you look at a race in the Olympics, these are the 10 best people in the world at swimming. They’re all super-incredible swimmers that would kick my butt in a race. You put them all in the pool, and Michael Phelps keeps winning, time and time again. How is that possible, if everyone’s a top athlete?’ There’s got to be something about Michael, and there is. He’s built to be a swimmer. He’s really tall, but most of it’s torso. That big upper body, big feet, long wingspan — he’s very streamlined. And so there’s individual little differences about Michael that make him faster than the others, besides his determination and his training. I look in the shark world and say, ‘Are there individuals that are faster?’ The answer seems to be yes. The bigger the shark, the faster he can swim.”

For the speed test in the special, they were working with what Hammerschlag described as “pre-teen to teenager white sharks,” who are smaller but more likely to comply. “Much like humans, [younger sharks] tend to have a little more energy and they’re a little more aggressive,” he says. “They’re kind of rambunctious and not very cautious, and they’re happy to chase the things that we put in the water during our tests.” (So no, that probably wasn’t the Phelps of sharks.)

“Did Phelps swim only one heat, or did he get multiple tries to best the shark’s time?”
“That was the one and only in the ocean,” Hammerschlag says. “When he came out, even though it was only less than a minute, he was so cold he was hypothermic. Even if we wanted to, he couldn’t get back in the water.” As viewers saw in the special, the crew was so (understandably) preoccupied with making sure that Phelps felt safe in the water and that his monofin was working and his wetsuit was streamlined, they didn’t really think about how cold the water was going to be (in the 50s, as opposed to the 80-degree pool water he’s used to). “Everyone else was wearing, like, 7mm wetsuits. His was maybe just over 1 millimeter, which is nothing,” Hammerschlag says.

“At the end of the special, there was a joke about making Michael ‘RoboPhelps.’ Is there anything more that could have been done to make him swim faster?” 
Yes. They originally tried to give Phelps an underwater breathing bottle. “It’s like a tiny little scuba tank. That way, he could swim and not have to come up for air. Because one of the big things that slows him down is having to come up for air,” Hammerschlag says. “When we were doing the checks in the swimming pool, he was moving so fast through the water that it was creating too many bubbles and actually pulling it out of his mouth.”

“When Phelps was getting his game face on pre-race, psyching himself up to face the cold temperature of the water, did anyone shadowbox in front of him like Chad le Clos did at the Rio Olympics?” 
Sadly, no. There was no time for that. “We were faced with some terrible weather the entire time we were out there. Every experiment we did, every trial, was almost like a Hail Mary in terms of we have this one chance to do it — whether it’s rain, wind, storm, light, whatever it was,” Hammerschlag says. “Everyone was really professional and focused on the task. We only get a chance to laugh about it after the fact, never really before.”

“What exactly happened when you guys were measuring a great white’s speed (distance divided by time) and Phelps feared he’d be pulled into the water?”
Let’s let Hammerschlag explain: “We took a winch and we took out just over a hundred meters of line. Right at the top of the winch, we put two tennis balls that we knew were five feet apart exactly. We put a field decoy, a fake seal, on the end of the line. When we saw a shark swimming around, we tossed it the seal decoy, and then we’d start pulling in the winch, and we tried to pull it so it was at the tip of the shark’s mouth. We had them chasing it in, so it would be the speed of a shark that was moving. We had a drone in the air that was stationary, just looking down. Because we knew the fixed length using the two tennis balls, and we knew the distance that was being traveled, we were able to calculate speed and distance over time. The thing is, from the angle where me and Michael were, we couldn’t see the shark moving, so we had to rely on the other boat yelling at us. We did it a lot of times, trying to get the sharks to chase the decoy with the winch for as much time as possible, so it would give us a great line so we could calculate distance over time, because of the fixed reference point and the drone from above. [Tristan Guttridge] on the other boat was yelling to us like, “Faster! Slower!” I was working the line and Michael was actually working the winch. He was sitting on it, so at one point the great white shark caught up to [the decoy] and grabbed it, and starting pulling out all the line on the winch, right to the end. I was in front of the whole apparatus. I wasn’t concerned necessarily about the shark in the water; I was just concerned about both me and Michael having this several-hundred-pound machine come flying from behind us and being pulled into the water. But at the same time, we didn’t want to lose the whole winch into the water.”

“What do you want people to take away from this special?”
The goal was twofold. Of course it was about making new shark fans. “Michael is an icon. I’m sure he has fans that probably wouldn’t have watched Shark Week if Michael wasn’t on it,” Hammerschlag says, adding that Phelps himself is now a knowledgeable ambassador. But it was also about showing why sharks are, in his words, “this super, perfectly evolved predator in the ocean.”

“Watching Michael swimming is really beautiful. The guy is so fluid, graceful, and fast, but he looks clunky next to a shark,” Hammerschlag says. “I think people are going to gain appreciation for that, that these aren’t mindless killers but in fact are really magnificent creatures that are just absolutely, perfectly adapted to the environment in which they exist.”

Shark Week continues through July 30 on Discovery.

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