As predicted, even with special shark-like swimming gear, Michael Phelps was no match for a great white shark in Discovery’s much-hyped “man versus shark” race that kicked off the network’s annual Shark Week.
Nor was Phelps any match for the internet’s reaction to the shark race.
Phelps vs. Shark: Great Gold vs. Great White premiered Sunday night as the main event of Shark Week. And although everyone pretty much knew that Phelps didn’t stand a chance, millions of viewers tuned in to see how it turned out — and many of them live-tweeted the experience.
How to stage (and hype) a shark race
For all the fanfare surrounding Discovery’s shark stunt, the concept was pretty simple: The network selected a 100-meter stretch of ocean in the Bahamas, had both the great white shark and the 28-time Olympic medalist swim the course, and compared their timed results. Though it was clear from interviews Phelps gave before the race that he wouldn’t actually be in the water with a shark, Discovery didn’t exactly advertise that part.
The network did its best to massively hype the race, including billing it as “the battle for ocean supremacy” and implying that Phelps was going to undergo some state-of-the-art transformations in order to have a chance of at least competing with the shark. Translation? He put on a swimming fin.
The actual hour-long broadcast of Phelps vs. Shark included Phelps simulating 50-meter races against two other varieties of shark in order to “prepare” for the race. Surprisingly enough, he actually beat one of them, besting a reef shark with a time of 18.7 seconds.
MICHAEL PHELPS IS FASTER THAN A REEF SHARK pic.twitter.com/4fPqYYLgBR— SB Nation GIF (@SBNationGIF) July 24, 2017
He had nothing on the hammerhead he practiced against, however, which beat him handily with a time of 15.1 seconds.
Meanwhile, the simple fact that Phelps would officially be competing against a great white — rather than the fastest known shark on the planet, the Mako — inspired a few complaints:
When it came time for the main event, the production team behind Phelps vs. Shark filmed an actual great white shark swimming in the specific 100-meter stretch of ocean designated for the “race.” So how did they manage that? Enter this brave guy on a floating bike thing, dragging along a decoy of a swimming seal to lure the shark along the designated track.
Umm can we talk about the guy on the floating bike right next to the shark without any life vest?! #SharkWeek— katerogers (@katerogersttu) July 24, 2017
For most of the broadcast leading up to Phelps’s big moment, viewers at home tweeted their reactions — a mix of eagerness, eye rolling, and derision. In other words, it was a typical evening on the internet.
Michael Phelps - I'm not racing in 2020 in Tokyo, I'm retired— Big Cat (@BarstoolBigCat) July 24, 2017
Also Michael Phelps - I'm so bored in retirement I'm gonna race a shark pic.twitter.com/U7EZO6LPCi
As the clock ticked toward the final showdown, Phelps’s famous “game face” from the Rio Olympics made quite a repeat appearance on Twitter.
And inevitably, there came the ultimate disappointment as people began to realize that Phelps was not actually racing in the water next to a real shark:
When you find out that Michael Phelps isn't actually racing an actual shark pic.twitter.com/6KwHGaWXc9— t (@tatummowery) July 24, 2017
Michael Phelps not PHYSICALLY racing a shark but still having a tv special is equal to having a meeting when it coulda been an email :/— MacKenzie Huneke (@Huenke) July 24, 2017
Finally, with just minutes to spare as the hour rolled away, the actual race happened. Phelps raced a simulation of the great white shark’s 100-meter swim — and to no one’s surprise, the simulated shark won by two seconds, performing a mighty breach as it attacked the decoy seal.
Phelps did an impressive job of keeping pace, however, swimming the stretch of open ocean in just 38.1 seconds to the shark’s 36.1.
My favorite thing is that Michael Phelps literally could've beaten a shark if he didn't have to breathe.— Morgan (@MorgsTheMermaid) July 24, 2017
Though the anticlimactic, simulated nature of the actual “race” let lots of people down, the real point of Phelps vs. Shark, as is typically the case with most Shark Week programming, was to sneak in some education and awareness raising about sharks, along with some science. Most of the event featured Phelps learning eyebrow-raising facts about sharks.
Given that humans kill 100 million sharks each year, the educational potential of Shark Week can’t be overstated, even if its track record is nowhere near perfect. And that’s why Phelps said he agreed to race the shark to begin with.
As for the gripping live-action animal-on-person drama you may have been expecting? You’ll have to wait for Usain Bolt to challenge that cheetah to a rematch.