Michael Phelps on His Shark Week Showdown, His Love of the Ocean, and Why He Hasn’t Slowed Down Since Retirement

Phelps Shark Week
Discovery Channel

It almost sounds like a stunt dreamed up on a playground: What would happen if the fastest swimmer in the world raced a great white shark?

That’s exactly the goal with Great Gold vs. Great White, the upcoming Discovery Channel Shark Week special in which Michael Phelps is set to take on one of the deadliest predators in the ocean.

Yes, really.

But the question remains: Why would the greatest U.S. Olympian in history put his reputation on the line against, y’know, an actual fish—let alone one with hundreds of teeth? Men’s Fitness sat down with Phelps to find out. Here’s his take.

Men’s Fitness: Is there any possible preparation you could do before the race?

Michael Phelps: You just watch that animal. It’s basically like swimming next to a school bus in the water. I think that kind of got me more intrigued to see what other sharks I can swim with. When I had the opportunity to be on a Shark Week show, it was an absolute no-brainer, and an instant yes from me, just because it was something on my bucket list to do. It was an amazing opportunity for me to learn more about sharks, which I’m already infatuated with.

It was the experience: Coming face-to-face with a 13′ hammerhead, or being in a cage and watching multiple great whites just fly around me, and not attack the cage. They would kind of bite at the cage, just what they normally do. I basically had an eight-foot great white almost come nose-to-nose with me in the cage. That was an opportunity and an experience that I never thought I’d have. It was pretty gnarly, and pretty unbelievable, just to see.

You posted on Instagram that you’ve always wanted to dive with sharks. When did this become an interest of yours?

I mean, this has probably been 15 or 16 years where I’ve really wanted to do this. I’ve always been a massive fan of Shark Week, and watched every year. This is something that’s always around a major meet for me, so it’s something that helps me relax a little bit. Now, being able to experience them in their own habitat actually makes me even hungrier to want to see more. I’ve only been able to see about 5-10 different species, and we have more than 500 species of sharks in the water, all over the world. I’m kind of just scratching the surface.

Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to see more and free- or scuba dive with a white. If you’re in 30′-40′ of water, you can actually just lay on the bottom, and take the element out of the surprise attack from a great white, because they always love coming from underneath of you to come straight up. That’s why we have all these amazing breach photos that we see all over the world. There are a lot of things I still want to do with sharks. Hopefully, some of the things that I’ve learned, we can pass along to other people, and help them preserve the wildlife that we have all over the world. There are too many people that are out there killing sharks, and that’s something that needs to stop.

The race will take place around the one-year anniversary of your last competitive race. What have you been doing the past year to stay in shape? Have you taken it easy, or ramped it up in some instances?

During the first couple months, I kind of took off. I raced at about 195, 200 (lbs) at the Olympic games—that was my fighting weight. I’m anywhere between 210 and 215. I was kind of lazy the first couple months and wanted to just enjoy retirement, and live life a little bit. Recently, I’ve started to realize that health and wellness are very large parts of my life, and it helps me be more productive. For me, it is eating a little better, a little different than I was in the past. I’m not burning as many calories as I did in the pool.

I’m still working out, anywhere between five and six days a week. I’ve been lifting a little bit more, because when I was swimming I never lifted much for my arms. It was all legs. I was a very leg-driven swimmer, and now I have the chance to do some more, whether it’s a bench press, or more with free weights, and stuff that I never had the chance to do.

I saw a workout that [Dwayne] “The Rock” [Johnson] did to get ready for Hercules. Honestly, I did it, and it kicked my ass. It destroyed me—absolutely destroyed me, but it was something that was good, in a way, just because it challenged me to be different, outside of the pool. I’ve always spent my time in the water, and now I have the opportunity to do different things. I’m in the process, now, of building my own gym, and looking for a space to rent, and kind of have my own escape, almost, really, like what The Rock does. He’s able to escape from life for a little bit and get some time in the gym, as we all see. I have an ideal weight that I’d like to hit. If I can stay around 210, but just be a little bit leaner than I am now, that’s what I’m really trying to do. Also, I’m just trying to manage time. I have so much going on outside of the pool, and outside of my business life. It’s making sure to take time, when I need it, to get a workout in that’ll make me more productive, and will make me a better dad, will make me a better husband. Just basically, it’s a balancing act, and I think we all go through that.

What would having that gym for yourself mean to you?

It’s basically a private little place that, when I do go to the gym and I want to work out, I can. I’d rather go in and get my work done that I need to, and kind of not, potentially, be bothered in between a set of squats, or somebody wants to take a photo. I don’t mind taking photos, but when I’m there, I want to lift, and I want to get my job done. I do have goals for myself. That’s how I’ve been able to reach the success that I’ve had, and, for me, I would like to get around 210 and stay around 210, but I don’t want to be as lean as I was last year. I mean, I was at 4.5% body fat last year, and that’s so low.

That, for me, is not a healthy spot, not where I’d like to be. I’d like to be shredded. I’d like to have some abs, and have some definition. We have a goal, and it’ll obviously take some time. Just getting in the habit of getting up early, before Boomer gets up, and try to get a workout in. It makes it tough, at times, when you’re traveling so much. If I have a goal that’s big enough, that’ll motivate me, that’s what’ll help me get out of bed. I think that’s what I have, right now.

You’ve clearly been watching your food more than when you were racing. Is there anything that you’ve indulged in, post-career?

No, not really. After 2012, I went from 185lbs to 235, with really doing nothing. I, basically, just got out of shape and didn’t really care. Then, that led me to not being in a very happy place, and leading me to a dark place. I know what that feels like, and it’s something I never want to happen again. It’s that challenge and that motivation to always keep me going, on certain things. It’s just fun. For me, life is a lot more fun and enjoyable now, than, really, it ever has been. I think part of that is me coming back, and finishing my career in 2016 in Rio, like I did.

Describe what your meals consist of nowadays.

I don’t eat much red meat, just because I know it’s hard for a body to break it down. I still eat a lot of fish and chicken. My snack days, I think that’s probably the biggest and hardest thing is I want to snack, snack, snack. For me, it’s all back to my goals. I’m about to eat a chicken Caesar salad. Nothing too exciting, but it’s what I want. I eat a lot of salads now, eat a lot of chicken, eat a lot of fish. I had a great meal last night. My mom sent us some Baltimore crabs that we enjoyed last night. It was amazing. We had some crab, some shrimp, some French fries, and it kind of brought me back to my childhood back in Baltimore. Just kind of a nice, summer day. It was amazing that that was something I still enjoy. I still love a hamburger from time to time, but it’s not something that I’m eating five days a week.

I always think about it this way: Your body is a high-performance car, and we want to put the best fuel into that car that you possibly can. There are times I want to eat a couple Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, but I know that if I do that there could be consequences with it. I do have a sweet tooth, and I am trying to stay on working out as much as I can. We just did a spin class yesterday. Oh my gosh, I was in so much pain afterwards, and I’ve never sweat that much in my life. It’s cool doing things differently now than I ever did when I was training. I don’t want to do the same routine that I did for 15-20 years. I want to try different things to see what really excites me. I think that’s something that my trainer tried to do over the last couple years of my career, because I got bored. I want this to be enjoyable. I want to have fun doing what I’m doing, and not feel like it’s a job.

What was the spin class like for you?

The place was called CycleBar, and it’s a place here in Scottsdale, AZ. We took a teacher-run hill class where we’d try and keep certain RPMs. There were 20 people in the room, and it was fun. It was myself, my wife, Nicole, my training partner, Allison Schmitt, and a buddy of mine, Grant, who’s been visiting from Australia for a couple of months. We were basically just trying to compete to see who could get the highest score, and, out of the 10 people, we were top four. I guess the competitiveness is still there, when we’re fighting to beat each other. It’s always good to have friends like that, that we can compete with, especially to push one another. That’s something that I’ve had for so long, and something that I need, at times. It’s always good to have a good support team, and a good group of friends to help you out.

Phelps vs. Shark: Great Gold vs. Great White airs on July 23 at 8 p.m. on The Discovery Channel.

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