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Can Phelps (or Ledecky) Actually Outswim a Shark?

Data Communication

Chris St. Jeor


The popular Discovery Channel event Shark Week is happening this month. This event brings to mind the correlation does not imply causation example that you often hear in statistics courses, “Ice cream sales and shark attacks are highly correlated; therefore, it must be true that eating ice cream increases your probability of getting attacked by a shark.” This statement is not true, but it does suggest that there must be something else going on.

This correlation could be due to the fact that more people are flocking to the ocean to escape the summer heat or perhaps sharks just love ice cream; but regardless of the coincidence, it does bring to mind the upcoming special for Shark Week, Phelps vs. Shark: The Battle for Ocean Supremacy. The premise of the show is simple: Michael Phelps is going to race a Great White shark. One of the fastest swimmers vs. one of the fiercest predators in a showdown that is guaranteed to be one for the ages and – should he win – propel Mr. Phelps into the history books once again as the GOAT (greatest of all time).

However, isn’t the race over, before it has even begun? Is it even remotely possible for a human to outswim a shark? We were curious, so we put together an analysis of the average swimming speeds of eight different shark species and compared them to the fastest known swimmers of the human species, Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky.

The Olympians

First the background on our fellow humans. Michael Phelps is the top male swimmer in the world, period. He has accumulated a total of 23 gold medals over the span of four separate Olympic games (2004-2016) and currently holds a total of 7 world records to back up that claim. Katie Ledecky is the fastest female distance swimmer in the world, blazing past her opponents in London to win gold at just 15 years old! To date, she has accumulated 5 gold medals and holds 3 world records as well as the fastest-ever recorded times in the women’s 500, 1000, and 1650-yard freestyle events. The table below shows the speed in miles per hour (mph) that the athletes achieved in each of their world record wins.

The two fastest speeds achieved by our world class swimmers were 4.71 mph by Michael Phelps in the 100M freestyle relay at the Olympic games in Beijing, China, and 3.78 mph by Katie Ledecky in the 400M freestyle at the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. That is fast, but the competition is steep.

The Competitors

How do these world record holders stack up against the sharks in our analysis? Let’s review each shark by its swimming speed to find out! In the following chart we have compiled the estimated top speed of eight different types of sharks listed by their Twitter IDs.

MakoSharkCarl is the clear winner in this comparison with his fastest recorded speed hovering around 46 mph. The next two swimmers, MaryLeeShark and BlueSharkThomas, have similar speeds of 25 and 24.5 mph respectively. Although, our money would be on MaryLeeShark every time in this race (her close relative was a movie star after all). These speedsters are followed closely by SharkLexi, Shark_Blacktip and the notoriously aggressive Shark_Gulliver all recording top speeds of above 10 mph. Then at the back of the pack, we have WhaleSharkRocky and SharkGreenland. These two aren’t much of the racing type with SharkGreenland holding the title of “slowest swimming shark” in the world and a breakneck top speed of 1.7 mph.

The Results

Want to see how each race might play out? Compare for yourself using the tool below. Select one of the sharks on the left, then select one of the olympic atheletes on the right. The top speed of each swimmer will appear below the image so you can decide who is most likely to win each race. You can also click the images to follow the competitors on Twitter!

25 MPH

4.71 MPH

Unfortunately, our gold medal winning, world record holding athletes would not even make it onto the podium against the majority of shark species. Six of the eight species we looked at would be able to win with ease. However, Phelps and Ledecky may not necessarily end up in last place. WhaleSharkRocky glides along in tropical oceans feeding mostly on plankton without a care in the world. His top speed of 3 mph makes him the first shark that our Olympic champions might be able to outswim. SharkGreenland is known to inhabit the colder waters of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. His top speed of around 1.7 mph is well below the top speeds that our champs are able to achieve. So, can Phelps or Ledecky actually outswim a shark? Yes, it is possible. It just depends on which shark is in the lane next to them.

Our Prediction

Next week, our televisions will be filled with a solid selection of shows dedicated to sharks. One show will follow the winningest Olympian of all-time on his journey to beat a Great White in what will truly be a battle between man and beast. The Great White’s top speed of 25 mph dwarfs what any human is capable of in a pool or open water so we are inclined to call this race in favor of MaryLeeShark. However, Mr. Phelps has surpassed all odds before and he is the GOAT after all. Next week when the swimmers take their marks let’s sit back, relax, and hope that our analysis is wrong and Michael Phelps will once again take home the gold, if he even makes it out of the water…(Jaws theme song begins to play ominously).

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