Our greatest athletes have long sought to test their skills against counterparts from the animal kingdom. Multi-sport star Jim Thorpe once wrestled a circus bear. Track icon Jesse Owens regularly lined up against race horses. Muhammad Ali once fought Eddie "The Animal" Lopez.
Now, the Discovery Channel is bringing us the ultimate man vs. beast competition: Headlining the opening night lineup of its annual summer series Shark Week, the network paired 23-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps in a race against a Great White Shark in Phelps Vs. Shark: The Battle for Ocean Supremacy.
Discovery is doing its part to boost the intrigue surrounding this curiosity of an event. In one promo, the narrator informs us that "One trained to be the best since the day he was born. The other has been perfected by evolution," amid footage of Phelps plowing through the water and a Great White launching itself at a seal.
It's certainly enticing bait, but one that immediately sets off the logic alarm in the brain. A little research reveals that a Great White can reach a speed of 25 mph, while Phelps, on his best of days, has topped out at 6 mph in the water. Is there any way this can be a fair fight? And furthermore, isn't this whole endeavor just a little bit dangerous? Are we about to find out that our beloved Olympic champion has met his end as a chum for the great killer of the deep?
To deal with the first question, this can be a fair fight if you box a wild shark into the human-constructed parameters of competition, and give Phelps a boost to help level the playing field.
For starters, while it's true that a Great White can rev up 25 mph, it does so in bursts. Scientists attached to the project have estimated that over the course of the planned 100-meter race, the shark would reach a steady pace of maybe 16 mph.
Second, Phelps has been fitted with a special monofin that allows him to generate more underwater torque with his feet and increase his speed to 12 mph. And undoubtedly inspires him to sing The Little Mermaid songs when he's trying it out in private.
Third, and this may seem a little obvious, but a shark is not used to "racing," and as such doesn't necessarily swim in a straight line. So even if you get Phelps and his opponent leaving from a starting point at roughly the same time and covering 100 meters together, the shark is going to be zigzagging to varying degrees.
And finally, we have the Phelps Face. Really, you're going to bet against that?
As for the danger aspect, Phelps has revealed that he was not swimming directly next the carnivorous aquatic beast, as one would do in a normal race, and that there were a good 15 safety divers around to provide a distraction, if necessary. And really, the exercise was in part to dispel some of the shark myths that have persisted since Jaws; namely, that these creatures spend their time tracking us from the ocean floor, like underwater boogeymen. This point is driven home in another series special, Shark School with Michael Phelps, in which he frolics alongside other species to show how peaceful and curious these creatures can be.
But hey, while we're all for fostering peace with our fishy friends, we really want to see the race. Will Phelps extend his swimming dominance to the ocean and display a mastery over its creations like a real-life Aqua Man? Or will the shark reject that challenge with an emphatic "Not in my house, monofin boy!" It's enough to fill our gills with giddy anticipation.
‘Phelps Vs. Shark: The Battle for Ocean Supremacy’ airs on July 23 at 8pm on Discovery.