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Culture > Entertainment

Michael Phelps Didn’t Race an Actual Great White Shark, & Twitter Was Furious

From 30 Rock‘s advice to “live every week like it’s Shark Week” to a shout-out in Macklemore’s hit single “Can’t Hold Us,” Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week is basically an American institution at this point. After 29 years on the air (it’s the longest-running cable TV programming event ever!), it’s hard to imagine how the network could keep it fresh and exciting—but their announcement that Michael Phelps would race a great white shark on a TV special dubbed “Phelps vs. Shark” did just that.  

“I’ve raced the fastest swimmers on the planet,” Phelps said in a promo video. “Except for one.”

While he did acknowledge in an Entertainment Weekly interview that he wouldn’t be literally racing beside a great white, he was cagey about the details, leaving us all in anticipation. “The only thing I can say is we weren’t in a pool. We were in open water.” Needless to say, people were beside themselves, whether for the race or the instant memes it inspired.

Even Team USA was excited.

At the beginning of the special, tension continued to build as Michael realized just how fast a great white is.

Finally the time came for the actual race. Phelps suited up in a 1-millimeter wetsuit and a monofin, then dove into the 56-degree, South African water—significantly colder than the 80-degree Olympic pools he’s used to. Despite the chill, he stayed even with the shark for 50 meters, but the shark pulled ahead in the end and beat Michael by two seconds. 

The real plot twist, however, is that Michael wasn’t racing an actual shark but a computer animation based on data from real sharks. Though of course it would have been unsafe to stick Phelps and a shark together in the ocean, people were less than thrilled by Discovery Channel’s special effects. 

Even for those disappointed with the CGI shark—or that Michael didn’t beat it—there was one moment of victory in the show. In a 50-meter race against a CGI hammerhead shark and CGI reef shark, Michael won, beating the reef shark by .2 seconds. 

While I might be so done with this Shark Week drama, it seems like Michael Phelps isn’t over it quite yet. “Rematch?” he tweeted, adding, “Next time..warmer water.” 

Hannah is a senior studying marketing and English at the University of Washington and is the Editor of the UW Her Campus chapter. She was also a Summer 2017 editorial intern for Her Campus Media. When not editing, writing, or pitching articles, she's probably at brunch.