Friday July 21, 2017

He's going to need a bigger stroke: Can Michael Phelps out-swim a great white shark?

As part of Discovery Channel's Shark Week, Olympian Michael Phelps will take on his fiercest opponent: a great white shark.

As part of Discovery Channel's Shark Week, Olympian Michael Phelps will take on his fiercest opponent: a great white shark. (Clive Rose/Carl de Souza/Getty Images)

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He may be the most decorated Olympian of all time, but those silver and gold medals won't help swimmer Michael Phelps in his race this weekend.

On Sunday, as part of Discovery Channel's Shark Week, Phelps will race a great white shark.

And according to animal trainer Jules Sylvester, you might want to place your bets on the shark.

"It's a good hype. I mean, it's fun and it sells," says Sylvester, who has worked on Jurassic Park, Dr. Doolittle 2 and Snakes on a Plane. "You've got Phelps swimming against a shark and everyone's going to tune in."

But chances are he's no match for a great white.

"The chance of Phelps winning that race is zero."

OLY Rio Swimming 20160813

Michael Phelps races the men's 4x100-metre medley relay during the 2016 Olympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His arms are 203 cm tip to tip. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

     

Teeth and fins and swimmers, oh my!

Phelps and the show's producers have been tight-lipped about the event, which is set to kick off the Discovery Channel's popular theme week on July 23.

But we know that Phelps' famous 203-centimetre wingspan won't be the only thing he has going for him. The swimmer will also be fitted with a flipper — much like a shark's tail — to provide extra torque underwater.

A team of 15 divers will also protect Phelps from the gaping jaws of his opponent.

Michael Phelps Shark Infographic

What are the chances that Michael Phelps will beat a great white shark this weekend? Slim, says Jules Sylvester. (Piktochart)

     

We love a good competition

There is no shortage of human versus animal competitions.

Take the early 2000s reality show Man vs. Beast, which Sylvester worked on. The series pitted athletes (and others) against animals far more powerful than themselves.

"Humans really want to prove to themselves that we're a superior being," Sylvester says.

But typically, these battles are uneventful.

Take the case of a man who attempted to be eaten by an anaconda, for example. Dressed in an armoured body suit for protection, the stunt man ended up with the 20-foot-snake wrapped around him rather than swallowing him.

"The snake will only eat you if it's comfortable," Sylvester said. "That was a total bogus thing. Why would a snake want to eat a guy in armour plating? It's just beyond me."

"But everybody tuned in. It made an absolute fortune. I wanted to fly there and kick him right in the 'goolies' for that one."

    

The animals don't really care

One of the challenges in human versus animal stunts is obvious: animals have little motivation to compete with humans.

"If we try to do a Man vs. Beast — like an orangutan pulling a sumo wrestler into the mud — the orangutan doesn't care," Sylvester said. "He'll pull the sumo wrestler or he'll let him go. The sumo wrestler has got this competitive edge and the orangutan says 'I think I like vanilla.'"

That said, there are some tricks to the trade. Much like their bipedal counterparts, animals can be bribed. The difference is that their currency of choice is food.

"It's like, 'I'll give you 16 bananas if you hang on to that rope.' Done," said Sylvester with a laugh.

     

A genre eaten alive

While the human-versus-animal genre continues, it certainly is losing its lustre. In the early 2000s, when Man vs. Beast premiered, it was at the height of a wave of wacky reality TV series.

It was also met with its fair share of controversy. The program only lasted for two seasons in the United States. A show with the same format and name was produced for British broadcaster ITV, but was put on hold indefinitely after outcry from animal rights groups.

Given his previous experiences, Sylvester says he likely wouldn't return to such programming.

"Nah. It's been done. I get bored of that stuff after a while," he said.

But much like a simian awaiting a banana, he could be persuaded.

"It's all about the money, basically, when it comes down to it."

For now, he continues to work as an animal wrangler for feature films. To hear about his experiences on the set of Snakes on a Plane, listen to the clip below.


To hear the full interview with Jules Sylvester, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.