Shavarsh Karapetyan: A Hero, an Athlete, a Legend
Shavarsh Karapetyan. An Olympic swimmer that got connected to the sport for reasons that sound inconceivable. A story of courage, bravery, persistence and luck that deserves a full exploration of the events that shaped it. A story that created a world champion of legendary proportions. Had the betting world been as spread as it is now, he would have made millions for those that placed their bets on him. Nevertheless, you can still bet on his successors. Just open a betting account without limits and you’ll be all set.
He was born on May 19, 1953, in Kirovakan, the largest city in Armenia. At the time this was still Soviet Union. At the age of 15, he was attacked by a group of hooligans who beat him, tied a boulder around his neck, and threw him into a lake.
Karapetyan had to wriggle under the water to untie his hands. Later on, in an interview, he said he would not have been able to reach the surface if the stone was just a little heavier. However, it was this episode that encouraged him to learn how to swim. It wasn’t much later that he discovered the level of his talent. He started training daily and managed to be selected for the Armenian championship. The result was his first medal as a champion at the age of 17.
Such a feat would have immediately been recognized and promoted nowadays. However, things in the former Soviet Union were a lot different then. The coaches that had the task of selecting the national team did not want to let a newcomer surpass the athletes that they were training themselves. So he was boycotted and taken out of the national team.
The blow did not discourage him. He was determined to continue swimming, so he started practicing finswimming (swimming with fins). Six months later, he received the title of Master of Sports in the Soviet Union.
The status quo reacted to him once again. In a competition in Kiev, his oxygen tank was sabotaged by a competitor in an effort to not only prevent him from winning, but also to dissuade him from going any further.
They forgot, or did not understand, who the man was. On the verge of death, he held his breath and swam for another 75 meters to win the race. He passed out the minute he raised his head above the water, so he learned of his victory at the hospital. A year later he broke his first world record and became European Champion.
His merit as a swimmer was finally acknowledged but the challenges to the man were far from over. In 1974 he and 30 other members of the team were being taken for a morning workout. The bus driver lost control of the vehicle. In a split second decision, he jumped out of his seat and grabbed the steering wheel, saving everyone before they were thrown off a cliff’s edge.
Two years later, on the morning of September 16, 1976, Karapetyan and his brother Kamo had just finished a 20-kilometer run on the shore of Lake Yerevan, when they heard the unmistakable sound a crash. A trolleybus with 92 passengers crossed a guardrail and plummeted 25 meters away from the lakeshore.
Without hesitation, Karapetyan jumped into the water and swam to the sinking vehicle. He broke the window with his foot and managed to save 20 people, one at a time, taking 30 to 35 seconds for each attempt. Afterwards, he lost consciousness, to wake up 46 days later after a deep comatose state.
Unfortunately, the news he received at that time were quite disheartening. First of all, he had not managed to save everyone. Secondly, his heroism would have irreversible consequences. He had contracted severe bilateral pneumonia, his blood had been contaminated by the amount of sewage in the water and suffered from extreme nervous exhaustion. That was the end of his career.
Recognition at last
Due to government censorship, the facts were not released to the public until 2 years later. It took another 4 years for a newspaper to mention Karapetyan as the hero. When the events of his life and the details of his heroic act were exposed, he became famous, receiving around 60 thousand letters. He also received the decoration of the Order of the Badge of Honor.
However, when asked about his act of heroism, he said he would rather die than choose not to jump into that lake while 92 people were literally drowned. He just knew it was the right thing to do, no matter how difficult and dangerous it was.
Disregarding his doctors, Karapetyan competed 1 more time and broke his 11th world record: 400 meters in 3 minutes. Afterwards, PTSD and the physical injuries took over and he was forced to retire. For a long time, he lived with an aversion to water, so much so that he forgot the athlete he was. The athlete that won the titles of:
- World champion 17 times
- European champion 13 times
- Soviet Champion 7 times
- 11 world records
However, he did not forget the kind of man he was. The date was February 19, 1985. He was near a building that burst into fire. Again, without hesitation, he ran to rescue people, suffering 3rd-degree burns and multiple injuries in several parts of his body, spending many days in the hospital.
That same year, the athlete was honored with a UNESCO Fair Play award.
Shavarsh Karapetyan never tried to profit from his heroic acts, so much so that for a long time he worked as a school principal while taking care of 3 children and living an ordinary life. He currently has a shoe repair shop in Moscow called “Second Breath”. He probably understood that no one could have done everything he did and the way he did it, but he never let it go to his head or felt that he was entitled to anything; a true hero indeed.
Life and sports are full of stories like Karapetyan’s. Inspiring stories that provide the incentive to others to try harder for what they want. Stories that we will keep publishing here at ACC-EX, so stay tuned to our news section, joining ACC-EX today!