Superheroes are defined as “benevolent fictional characters with superhuman powers, such as Superman.” Maybe it’s time to expand that definition to include non-fictional folks, specifically Shavarsh Karapetyan.
Here is Karapetyan’s story.
The world has seen many great sportspersons who have set and broken many records. Then comes someone like Shavarsh Karapetyan and does much more than create just another sports record. Karapetyan is someone who has left an undying legacy both in and out of the arena. The Soviet swimming champ has 17 world championships in finswimming, 7 Soviet championships, and 13 European champion titles to his name.
That is only one reason why he is loved and cherished by the world. The 11-time world record-breaker is also one of the very rare few sportspersons in history who have saved human lives. And with Karapetyan, there are at least 20 people owe their lives to this legendary professional swimmer.
And in saving those people’s lives, Karapetyan not only risked his life perilously, but his heroic act also brought his shining career to a halt. The injuries he sustained from the rescue caused irrecoverable damages to him. These brought his star-studded professional career to an end. However, he would be happier to have sacrificed his career or even his life to save the lives of others.
Shavarsh Karapetyan: A Heroic Rescue
It was the 16th day of September in 1976 when Karapetyan and his brother Kamo were training alongside Armenia’s Yerevan Lake. He liked to run 20 km every day as part of his training and completed the distance on that day. He and his brother heard a large crash and witnessed a trolleybus sinking into the water. It was as if fate had gifted him with the unique talent that he had for this very day.
Karapetyan in 2014 – By Канал Люди (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AD-IPfhp7YU) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Karapetyan jumped instinctively into the icy water after the trolleybus. The trolleybus had touched the murky bottom at a depth of 33 feet. Despite the lack of visibility, the champ located the bus, broke its window and began rescuing people one by one. Think about diving some 30 feet down in murky waters in hopes of locating and retrieving crash victims one by one. By the time he lost consciousness, he had rescued dozens of people. Tragically, only 20 survived.
The injuries from the broken glass windows, the cold water, lung complications, and the sepsis left Karapetyan in hospital for almost two months.
Karapetyan became the hero of the USSR and received tens of thousands of letters from people. He won the Order of the Badge of Honor and the Medal For the Salvation of the Drowning. The story of this unbelievable rescue traveled far and wide. He was awarded the UNESCO Fair Play award and even had an asteroid named after him. The asteroid is called “3027 Shavarsh.”
Showing Heroism under Perilous Circumstances
That Shavarsh was a world finswimming champ didn’t alleviate the obstacles to rescuing so many people. When he followed after the disappearing trolleybus and followed its electric trolley poles, he realized that breaking into the cabin was not going to be easy. It was then that he comprehended the gravity of the situation – that is, trying to save those people, his own fate would be tied to theirs. He asked his brother Kamo to stay on the surface to retrieve the people and rescue himself if he were in trouble.
When Karapetyan broke the window with his leg and pulled it back, the broken glass caused severe injuries. The silt disturbed by the entire commotion created conditions of almost zero visibility. The only way the swimmer could recognize people was to grope around and feel his perception of touch. Badly injured and working his way through the dark, he went on by hauling out one after another passenger from the trolleybus. This was until he himself fell unconscious and needed to be rescued.
Karapetyan’s Inspiration to Become a Swimmer
Armenia is a land-locked country without much of a history in making great professional swimmers. It has sent some of the best wrestlers and boxers to the world’s top sports events. Still, Karapetyan’s is an inspiring story that put the country on the world map, not just for a multiple record-breaker world champion but also for a great human being.
Karapetyan’s inspiration to become a swimmer goes back to when he was a 15-year old young man. Many ruffians beat him up and threw him in a lake with a stone tied to his neck. He ripped the ropes and swam out to save himself. This near-death experience inspired him to become a better swimmer, and he began taking lessons.
Soon he found that he had a natural talent for the sport and began competing at the professional level. He began training without any professional trainer and stunned everyone by becoming the Armenian champion at just 17. This was when he faced his first hurdle to greatness. The renowned players and their trainers were influential in keeping out the national champion out of the national team, which was absolutely ironic.
Safaryan, the leading coach for Armenian swimmers, remarked that Karapetyan lacked both flexibility and techniques as a swimmer. This is although those training under him didn’t stand a chance against the talented swimmer. Karapetyan recalls that it was one of the most crushing moments in his life when they dropped him from the national team. Despite being the best, he was bluntly told that he didn’t have a future in the sport.
Determined to Succeed
But Karapetyan was destined to become one of the greatest swimmers, and nothing could stop him.
Karapetyan didn’t get discouraged by the ill-behaved treatment that he received from the officials. He switched his sport to finswimming, and it was not even a year before he won the title of the Master of Sports of the Soviet Union. It dawned upon the Armenian officials that the country was perhaps too small for the pursuits of this talented legend. It took him just 8 more months to become the Master of International Class. Within a year, he was the Champion of the Soviet Union, and the next year he broke the World record to become the European champ.
He almost died once when an envious competitor released most of the oxygen from his oxygen tank. The competitor had, however, not realizing that this legend was made of some otherworldly stuff. Karapetyan kept swimming even after his oxygen tank was empty. He held his breath for a distance of 75 meters to eventually lose his consciousness but not the event. He won the event but learned about it only when he gained consciousness lying in a bed at the hospital.
The Influence of Almasakyan on Karapetyan
Liparit Almasakyan, a lifeguard by profession, influenced Karapetyan and laid the foundation for what helped save the lives of those dozens of passengers on that ill-fated day in 1976. When the national officials showed the 17-year old national champion the door, it was not only his own grit that paved the path for a future in swimming to which there is no other equal.
Almasakyan, popularly known as Lipo to his friends, played a key role in creating his country’s underwater sports program. When the 17-year old Karapetyan expressed his grief about his career coming to an abrupt end to Lipo, the latter gave him a new direction in the form of finswimming. He began training under the lifeguard the very same day. He recalls the day, “I took a taxi home, rested up a bit, and came back for my first workout.” (Source: Grantland)
Karapetyan may have been a talented swimmer, but what prepared him for something like breaking 11 World records and saving those lives on that fateful day in 1976 was the training he took under the aegis of Lipo. It came to be known as the most intense strength work in the sports world. It would involve running up to 29 km a day, often with a sand-filled backpack.
The training also involved rowing workouts on Lake Yerevan. Karapetyan would also perform innovative exercises, developed by Lipo, to improve foot strength. Wooden planks would be fixed on ski boots, and the swimmer was made for jogging in them. Another exercise required him to carry a person on his shoulders when running. Sometimes he would have to climb the hills on his hands with his legs behind him, being held by another athlete.
How Did Finswimming Make a Difference in his Heroic Rescue Attempt?
Finswimming is different from swimming, and it was not just the natural talent that Karapetyan had, and the rigorous training that he underwent helped prepare him for that special day. It was the very kind of sports pursuit that finswimming was that made another key difference. Finswimming involves racing underwater using scuba tanks or snorkels for longer distances. The athletes would, however, be required to hold their breath when the race is short.
Lipo trained Karapetyan and his other pupils on how to hyperventilate using 5 deep breaths artificially. This allowed them to stay underwater for much longer than normal. Strapping the large monofin helped further enhance the underwater swimming capabilities of the finswimmer.
By this time, Karapetyan had become an unstoppable force in professional finswimming. The 19-year old Karapetyan won two gold medals at the 1972 European Championship. He increased his tally to 8 gold medals by the 1975 European Championship, breaking a series of world records. But with many more gold medals waiting for him, he was surprisingly dropped by the sports officials for the 1976 event when he was just 23 years old. Maybe fate had a greater calling for him that year when he broke all the records that all the sports events in history could ever contemplate – by saving the lives of those 20 passengers.
Born in 1953 in Kirovakan (now Vanadzor), Karapetyan was raised in the former Soviet Union. When he was 11, Shavarsh’s family moved to Yerevan. He has humble beginnings and was raised in a single-story house. Vladimir, his father, was interested in making all his three sons great athletes. So when the family moved to the lake town, Shavarsh was enrolled in a gymnastics academy. He really impressed everyone there with his unyielding ambition, build, and reflexes. This is where the foundation of him becoming one of the most amazing swimmers was laid.
Serving His Country
Even during the peak of his career, Karapetyan showed his dedication by serving his country. He served with the Soviet Air Defence Forces from 1975 to 1976 before the Lake Yerevan trolleybus incident occurred. Shavarsh is considered a true patriot of both Soviet Russia and Armenia. Karapetyan carried the 2014 Winter Olympic torch in Moscow. He carried the torch from Moscow to Krasnogorsk. When asked about it in an interview, the legendary athlete and personality said, “I was carrying the torch for Russia and Armenia.” (Source: Wikipedia)
Legacy and Another Rescue
There have been, and there will be, many legendary sportspersons who will set new records and deliver performances that will be remembered for decades. But there will be very few who will be like Shavarsh Karapetyan. Call it fate or anything else, what he did on that fateful day in September of 1976 would be remembered not only by the people of Eastern Europe but by everyone on this planet for centuries. The scriptures say that saving just one life is equivalent to saving the whole of humanity. What a 23-year old young man from a small town in Armenia did on that day, without concern for his own life or career, cannot be expressed in words.
Nine years after the trolleybus accident, Karapetyan walked by a burning building with several trapped inside. He rushed in and started pulling people out. That’s what superheroes do.
It is well established that sports can give health, wealth, and so much goodness to this world. Karapetyan proved that sports could also provide the training needed for a life-saving pursuit at times. The world needs more people like him. When faced with difficult tasks, some folks find the energy to leap. Maybe he possessed a special quality that enables him to move from one challenge to another with flying colors. Or was it his training? We’ll never know. But what we can tell is that the name Shavarsh Karapetyan should be written in golden letters when people read the history of sports legends.
By Andy Atticus
Andy is a sportswriter living in St. Paul, Minnesota.
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