Shavarsh Karapetyan: From finswimming world champion to ‘Superman’

D. Prants, Gerbert Bagdasaryan/TASS
There is no shortage of sporting greats in the Soviet and Russian pantheon, but one world record-breaking finswimmer literally earned his hero’s badge by risking his life twice to save more than 20 people.

On a sunny fall day in Moscow in 2013, a former Soviet athlete made the news for the wrong reasons. Shavarsh Karapetyan ran with a flameless Olympic torch through the Kremlin for a few seconds, before an official lit it with a cigarette lighter.

While the incident caused momentary international embarrassment for Russia, which wanted to showcase its resurgence for the Sochi 2014 Olympics, the Russian public was reminded of the almost-forgotten heroics of Karapetyan from the 1970s and 1980s. 

Born in the then Soviet republic of Armenia in 1953, Karapetyan would take up competitive swimming in school and become a major prospect in the republic.

Soviet champion in underwater swimming Shavarsh Karapetyan, Yerevan, 1974

Internal politics, however, would come in the way of a promising career as a swimmer. He eventually turned to finswimming and started to gain worldwide attention in this non-Olympic sport. His first major breakthrough came in the 1972 European championships in Moscow, where Karapetyan won two gold medals. By the age of 23, he had become a 17-time world champion, 13-time European champion and a 10-time world record-breaker. 

Heroics in Yerevan Lake 

On September 16, 1976, Shavarsh and his brother Kamo, who was also a finswimmer, and their coach Liparit Almasakyan went for a jog on what seemed to be an uneventful morning in Yerevan. At the same time the trio was passing the Yerevan Lake, trolleybus number 15 began to swerve out of control. Within seconds it ran off the road and on to the sandy bank of the artificial reservoir and then plunged into the cold water.   

The trolleybus had 92 people on board, including one passenger who had tried to force the driver to make an unscheduled stop, resulting in a melee that caused the accident. The bus had sunk to a depth of 10 meters and those inside were trying in vain to break the glass windows and escape. 

The trolleybus swerved out of control and fell into Yerevan Lake

At that moment, Shavarsh decided to jump in and pull out people, while asking his brother and coach to take the rescued passengers to the shore. The finswimmer dove in and broke open a glass window by kicking it.  Despite his profusely bleeding legs and the cold water, he pulled people out and took them to his brother and coach, and repeated this routine 30 times.  

“The most difficult thing was to knock out the rear window of the trolleybus,” Karapetyan told the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper in 1982. He managed to get a grip near the roof of the bus and then kicked the glass. “The pain was unbearable.  Of course, I was hurt by the glass, but then I did not think about it - I understood that there was little time.” 

He managed to pull out 46 people, but only 20 people survived. Rescuers who arrived at the scene, told an exhausted Karapetyan to stop pulling out people, since there was no chance of any remaining passengers being alive. At that point, the finswimmer was also beginning to lose consciousness. “Losing consciousness when there wasn’t enough oxygen, I pulled out a cushion from the bus. I was in a borderline conscious state and did not think it was not a human being that I pulled out,” he said, adding that he regretted not being able to save one more life. 

Shavarsh Karapetyan, 13-time European and 7-tim USSR skin diving champion, 1983

As a result of this daring rescue, his career as a finswimmer was over. He was rushed to the intensive care unit, and remained in hospital for 45 days. The athlete had lost a lot of blood and the combination of cold water and multiple lacerations from glass shards led to pneumonia and blood poisoning. He remained in critical care for several days with his life in serious danger.  

For his heroics, the Soviet government awarded him the Order of the Badge of Honor, but not the more prestigious Hero of the Soviet Union. It is believed that the authorities wanted to downplay Karapetyan’s heroics.  

Pictured L-R: swimming coach Kamo Karapetyan, Shavarsh Karapetyan, children coach Anatoly Karapetyan, 1983

“Immediately after the accident, some people wanted to publish an article in a newspaper, but this was not allowed,” Karapetyan remarked in a more recent interview. “In the USSR, trolleybuses were not supposed to fall into the water!” 

The former finswimmer finally became a household name when the story of his heroic rescue efforts was published in the Komsomolskaya Pravda in 1982, six years after the incident. Until then, the Soviet public was oblivious to the name of the Yerevan hero.  

Rescue at the Sports and Concert Complex

The accident at Yerevan Lake was not the first time that Karapetyan saved lives. Two years earlier, he was traveling by bus from a sports facility to the center of Yerevan. At one point, the driver stopped the bus and went to check if the engine was working properly, but forgot to apply the handbrake.  

The bus started moving in reverse towards a deep mountain gorge. The finswimmer, relying on his quick instincts, ran towards the driver’s cabin and managed to steady the bus before applying the brakes! The incident grabbed little attention, since no one was injured. 

Shavarsh Karapetyan pictured on a bus on route to work, 1983

The Yerevan Lake in 1976 incident was also not Karapetyan’s last heroic act. Nine years after he had saved people from the lake, the former finswimmer again put on his invisible cape in Yerevan. This time, it was the city’s famous Sports and Concert Complex which had caught fire.  

Karapetyan happened to be there at the moment of the fire breaking out and he rushed in to help extinguish the flames and bring people to safety. He ended up with major burns and was in the hospital for over a fortnight.  

Over time, recognition for the Armenian’s heroics came from both the Soviet Union and abroad. In 1986, the Minor Planet Committee approved the naming of an asteroid in his honor: The ‘3027 Shavarsh’ had been discovered in 1978 by astronomers at the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory. Other global recognitions for Karapetyan include a World Fair Play Prize.

Letters from grateful people came to Shavarsh Karapetyan from all over the Soviet Union

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Karapetyan moved to Moscow and started a shoe company. His heroics were largely forgotten until the Olympic torch relay in 2013. After the embarrassing incident in Moscow, he was asked to carry the torch again the next day. He then famously remarked to the Russian press that he was carrying the torch for both Russia and Armenia.

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