I’m sure you’ve all heard of Michael Phelps; he’s the guy with more Olympic medals than most countries. It would be hard to argue against him being the greatest Olympian of all time. It’s also hard to see anyone breaking his records anytime soon. The man earned twenty-three gold medals, three silver, and two bronze at the Olympics in swimming, and it’s hard to even think of anyone ever winning more than that in any other sport. In one of the most entertaining events this year, Michael Phelps was to race against a shark to see if he could swim faster; the man is practically half aquatic, given his amazing physique and phenomenal swimming record.
The event was hosted by Discovery Channel’s Shark Week programming. To the disappointment of viewers, Michael Phelps and the shark weren’t actually swimming next to each other like in an Olympic race, which actually makes a lot of sense. The shark swam the course first, then he followed swimming the same course, and their results were compared. A defeat to humans everywhere, despite it being an expected one, the shark beat Phelps by just two seconds, as it completed the course in 36.1 seconds while he did it in 38.1 seconds. This is still a great record for him, even if he didn’t win. Before the race, he said, “I’m gonna have to swim, and act, like a shark,” as he swam in what looked like a sideways butterfly stroke.
It’s amazing that so many people actually thought Michael Phelps could beat the shark, perhaps because we’re not very familiar with how fast a shark can swim. After all, how many of us have seen a shark swim? Maybe it’s because we’re so used to him achieving the impossible. This is someone we’ve seen win races against the best swimmers in the world for over eight years with relative ease as he broke every single record. We forget, however, that he is, in fact, human, and a shark is an aquatic animal. No matter how good you are at swimming, an aquatic animal, especially a shark, will be better. Let’s take a look at the physiology of humans and sharks and what makes them the outright favorites for winning swimming races against humans.
First, let’s talk about what makes sharks one of the fastest swimmers on Earth. Scientists have discovered that, thanks to their tail moving from side to side, sharks create twice as many jets of water as other fish. This makes their swimming much faster and more efficient. They do this via stiffening the tail mid-swing. It’s also interesting that if sharks completely stop moving, they start to sink. In order to keep floating, they need to keep moving. They do this by extending the top of the tail further back than the bottom of it.
A scientist at Harvard University discovered a muscle in the tails of sharks that moves at certain times during swimming. To do this, they put particles in water that would move by the jets made as fish swam and moved their tails. The particles would then appear as circles to be detected by a certain light. The circles made by a shark were compared to those made by two other types of fish. It was noticed that the other fish created one ring of water at the end of each tail flick, while on the other hand, sharks created two rings followed by one small ring, the one large one indicating the shark tails move differently from the tails of other fish and that they change position during each swing. The scientists concluded the muscle discovered gives an added thrust mid-swing, giving the shark higher swimming speeds.
Large sharks can usually swim at speeds of 1.5 miles per hour. A small blue shark was found to be capable of reaching speeds up to 43 miles per hour while swimming against a current of 17.7 miles per hour. These are insane speeds that are very difficult for a human to match.
In 2005, it was believed the maximum human swimming speed was around 4.5 miles per hour. In 2010, however, Michael Phelps reached speeds of 6 miles per hour. The speed of 4.5 miles per hour is thought to be only 16% of the speed of the fastest human sprinters. It’s also important to take into consideration that it’s very difficult for people to maintain these speeds for long.
Scientists say there are two main factors that limit how fast we can swim. The first factor is that our physical power limits our ability to propel ourselves in water. It also doesn’t help that altering our propelling increases the drag we face as we swim, which is the second factor. Suggestions for faster swimming include holding your hands stiff with proper angling and minimizing the time it takes you to pull your hand out of the water during a stroke.
Bodysuits, fins, and flippers can improve our speeds in water. Bodysuits, for instance, lessen the effect of drag, which holds us back. Nowadays, the use of technology has also made a difference in the speeds athletes can reach while swimming, as they can monitor their performance and movements. By doing this, they can find the movements and swimming methods that give the maximum swimming speed.
Diana Nyad, 67-years-old now, is a legend when it comes to swimming long distances. In 2011, she attempted to swim 103 miles from Cuba to Florida’s coast. The swim is over 60 hours long, and a lot of complications could have happened to her. These complications included drastic changes in body temperature, loss of muscle mass, and dehydration. A doctor from Mayo Clinic said the exercise itself wasn’t a major problem, as it was moderately paced, but the real issue would be lack of sleep, maintaining her body temperature, and having enough energy to keep going. It took Diana five attempts to complete the trip, and she finally completed it in 2013, doing it in just 53 hours.
Now, let’s get back to our race between Phelps and the great white shark. Like we discussed before, sharks can swim much faster than humans, but they can’t maintain these speeds for too long. Thus, naturally, a short race would be no contest for the shark. So, the organizers decided to stretch the race to 100 meters in order to tilt things a little bit in Phelps’ favor. A shark has to slow down to conserve energy and can’t maintain its high speeds for too long. Phelps, on the other hand, can maintain his top speed for a while. Phelps himself was quoted saying, “I’ve always been an endurance swimmer, and hopefully, that will work in my favor.”
There were a few factors that worked against him, though. For starters, the visibility wasn’t great. Secondly, the water was a lot colder than what he was used to. To be specific, the water he raced the shark in was 24 degrees colder than that of an Olympic swimming pool. Phelps said, “I’m high-maintenance when it comes to cold water. I don’t like it.” His wetsuit was also just 1-millimeter thick, which didn’t help with the temperature. Phelps reached a speed of 8.8 miles per hour at the start of the race and was ahead, but the shark soon caught up and took the lead. In the end, he lost by just two seconds, as he completed the 100 meters in 38.1 seconds, while the shark did it in 36.1 seconds.
Despite the loss, it’s still another impressive feat by Michael Phelps, who has stretched the reality of swimming as far as possible, and definitely farther than anyone ever thought could be achieved. Any reasonable swimmer would not even enter a race with a shark, but to be the greatest Olympian in history, you don’t really need a lot of reason, do you?