Michael Phelps on His Shark Week ‘Race’ With a Great White — and the One Thing That Made Him Nervous

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

Phelps vs. Shark: Great Gold vs. Great White is already the most talked-about hour of Shark Week 2017, which kicks off July 23 on Discovery. In the opening night special, which was filmed last month (spoiler alert: he lives!), Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, with 23 Olympic golds and 39 world records in the pool, tests his speed against that of different shark species, including the ocean’s most efficient and feared predator.

Any fan of Shark Week should know that Phelps wouldn’t really race a great white in open water — if you swim fast away from a shark, you look like prey — but it’s still the No. 1 question people had after Discovery announced “the race is on!” last month. To confirm the format of the epic showdown, Yahoo TV phoned Phelps, who, after laughing, explained.

“We were off the tip of Cape Town in South Africa and set up, almost, a lane where I was able to swim in a straight line. We were in open water, but we did not have a shark literally next to me swimming,” he says. When it was time for his competition’s turn, “The challenge of trying to get a white to swim in a straight line was difficult, because when a white attacks a seal on the surface they come from under the surface to build speed to be able to get that natural breach that we all see from great whites. But I think with some of the tests that we were running out there on the boat, we were able to see what they can do. It’s a speed burst that they reach up to 25 mph, so in a 100-meter race, they might be swimming at 16 mph. Don’t look at me to try to figure out formulas, but I know we have people that are smart enough to be able to figure the formulas out to then project the speed that they would swim over the course of 100 meters. That’s what we were able to do, and it was crazy — just watching them naturally breach and then watching them come down with the amount of force that they have when they are going to see what something is.”

Phelps, who dove with a whale shark in the Maldives after the 2012 Olympics and had diving with great whites on his bucket list, wasn’t scared of being mistaken for a seal while swimming his leg of the race. “We had an abundance of divers underneath of me and camera guys all over the place, so I felt very safe and comfortable,” he says. Still, something did make him nervous…

“As you see me getting ready for the race in Cape Town, you see focus on my face, and I think that was partially because I was trying to mentally prepare myself for the temperature of the water,” he says. “The water was very cold. I knew it was going to be cold, but swimming in 55 degree water when normally it’s about 80 when I swim in it, that’s a significant difference. I would say probably the worst part about it was the cold water.” It’s also the reason he won’t answer the second most popular question people had after hearing about the match-up: What stroke will he swim? Freestyle or his signature, butterfly? “We’ll leave that one a secret,” Phelps says. “I wasn’t fully expecting the temperature of the water, so you guys are going to have to tune in to watch.”

Michael Phelps dives into the water in the Bahamas. (Photo: Discovery)

Shark Week closes July 30 with a second special featuring the GOAT, Shark School With Michael Phelps. Doc Gruber and Tristan Guttridge of the Bimini Shark Lab give him a crash course that Discovery says will dispel misconceptions, get him up close to the power of a great white, and “teach him how to safely dive with sharks — including how to stay calm when a hammerhead swims two feet above his face.” So what is the trick for that? Phelps laughs again. “I think it was about six inches from my face. It was really close to me,” he says. “I guess it’s probably doing more common sense stuff than you think about. It’s not freaking out, trying not to flail your arms all over the place. Not splashing into the water and making a gigantic wave, because that’s obviously going to attract them to come up and see what’s jumping in their environment and try and check it out. … We look at these animals as dangerous animals but they’re not; they’re out there trying to survive just like we are on land.”

Michael Phelps and the crew watch a shark approach the cage, which Phelps is about to enter. (Photo: Discovery)

Luckily, he also absorbed another key lesson during Shark School: Always keep your hands inside the cage. Ask him to name the most satisfying moment of his experience with Shark Week, and he points to coming “literally almost nose-to-nose” with a great white. “We had a couple feisty ones that were going crazy in front of the cage and on the side of the cage, and I actually almost stuck my hand outside of the cage because we lost one of the Go Pros, and I saw it going down, and it was in arm’s reach. I was like, ‘Ooh, maybe I could get it,’ and I went to reach out and instantly pulled my hand back. I was like, ‘Nope, I’m not going to do this, my hand could go bye-bye,'” Phelps says. “[Afterward], we were all kind of laughing, because when I was under the water with ABC [Andy Brandy Casagrande IV], one of the camera guys, he was like, ‘Dude, I watched you. I have it all on camera. I was hoping you were not going to stick your hand out there.'”

As a longtime Shark Week fan, Phelps was excited to hang out with Casagrande, a fan favorite for his bravery (remember him leaning off the side of a boat and a dingy to place his fin cam on great whites) and his brains (he always knows when to call a dive before it gets too dangerous). “Andy and I still talk probably three times a week. He’s sending me some things that he’s been doing and some pretty unbelievable, epic photos that you see on his Instagram. He’ll shoot ’em over before he posts them, and I mean they’re mind-blowing to me. He was somebody that was really cool to get to know, just to see how passionate he truly is about conservation of sharks and helping the population learn more and more about sharks. You really hear the excitement in his voice and definitely see it on his face, how passionate he is about what he does, and I thought that was a true treat,” Phelps says. “I loved hanging out with Tristan, too, from the Bimini Shark Lab. We had such a great time just getting to know each other, obviously spending a lot of time together on a boat and me asking a bunch of questions. I was like a kid in a candy store. Those guys were tremendous to work with, and I’ve talked to both of them about going back to Bimini and checking out the Shark Lab and potentially doing some more stuff with Andy.”

So you heard it here: Phelps will return to the (shark-infested) water. “I don’t think my shark diving is over just because I did this show. I’d like to think that it’s just beginning,” he says. “We know very little about what’s under the ocean — that’s something that’s more intriguing for me. We know that the deepest point in the ocean is roughly seven miles deep, but we really don’t know probably about half the creatures, maybe even more than that, that we have in our oceans. The oceans cover more than 70 percent of the earth, and I think it’s crazy that we know almost nothing about it. We know more about space. Hopefully I have more opportunities to just get up close and personal with these animals because, when you do see them in their own habitat, they’re absolutely phenomenal to watch. Especially watching a hammer. I think of it as a majestic creature. Just watching this animal swim through the water like it does — it sends goosebumps up my body talking about it.”

Until Phelps gets another chance to explore, he’ll have someone else to share his love of sharks with: his son, Boomer, whose smash cake for his first birthday in May was a great white. “He’s got a bunch of sharks in his room, and we actually just got a big hammerhead for him to put in there, too. He loves his little animals,” Phelps says. “So it was cool watching [him with his cake] and then going through the experience that I went through this summer. … You’ll hear me say this 100 times, but it was just a dream come true. … I guess it was more exhilarating than really anything that maybe I’ve done outside of a pool, and I think that was something that surprised me the most — I didn’t really find myself too afraid at any point. It was just like anything else on somebody else’s bucket list: You’re just so pumped to get in there and do it, and to have the opportunity with some of the best and most talented guys in the shark world was a pretty special event for me.”

Phelps vs. Shark: Great Gold vs. Great White premieres July 23 at 8 p.m., and Shark School with Michael Phelps premieres July 30 at 8 p.m., on Discovery.

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