Michael Phelps vs. Dolphins: Who wins the gold?

Published August 21, 2008

From Beth Manning and Justin Garner, dolphin trainers at the National Aquarium There has been a lot of media coverage suggesting that Michael Phelps swims like a dolphin. So much so that even us trainers have gotten in on the action – reminding Phelps that dolphins are still the fastest swimmers in Baltimore. So the question arises, how fast is Michael Phelps compared to a dolphin? Most popular literature quotes dolphins as having top speeds of 20-25 mph, though up to 16 mph is more likely. The higher speeds have been recorded when bow riding,  when their speed is most likely facilitated by being pushed along in front of a boat cutting through water. More typical speeds recorded in both wild dolphins and in aquaria and zoos indicate sprints peak at 18 mph, with a cruising speed of 6.21 mph. Top swimming athletes are said to average 5.25 mph. But in the case of Phelps, let’s round up to 6 mph. So is it a photo finish? Does Phelps get “touched out”? It seems so. Phelps top speed only approaches the cruising speed of a bottlenose dolphin, and is nowhere near the maximum velocity. In addition, when cruising at top speeds, dolphins will often leap their full body out of the water as they take a quick breath, and still maintain their pace. Let’s see you try that Phelps!!
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