Shavarsh Karapetyan: When The Word 'Hero' Is Not Enough

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Seventeen times world champion finswimmer, 13 times European champion and seven times Soviet champion. An eleven-time World Record-breaker. The remarkable man has a history of saving lives and facing his own mortality.

Shavarsh Karapetyan: When The Word 'Hero' Is Not Enough

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Seventeen times world champion finswimmer, 13 times European champion and seven times Soviet champion. An eleven-time World Record-breaker. The remarkable man has a history of saving lives and facing his own mortality.


At the age of 15, he got into a fight with some hooligans who beat him, tied a large, heavy stone to his neck and then threw him into a lake. He started moving his body underwater and ripped the ropes off his hands, releasing himself from the stone on his neck and then swam to the surface.


That experience encouraged him to take swimming lessons. He was so talented that he decided began to compete on a professional level. He taught himself, without a trainer, and became the champion of Armenia at the age of 17. He started to beat his peers but was cut from the national team by some envious trainers. It was a challenging time for the young swimmer, but he did not abandon his calling. He switched to finswimming and within six months became the “master of sports of the Soviet Union”, in eight months he became “master of international class”, within 12 months he became the champion of the Soviet Union and, finally, within 14 months he became the European champion by breaking the World record.


During his competitions in Kyiv, he almost died again when a rival competitor opened his oxygen tank, letting a good amount of oxygen out to make him lose the competition. However, he continued the swim, losing oxygen and having to hold his breath for 75 meters. As he felt his life slipping, he lost his consciousness but still won the event and was immediately hospitalized. He heard of his victory in the hospital, as he recalls.


His courage was tested again in 1974 when Shavarsh was riding the bus to the swimming pool. During that ride, the driver lost control of the bus on a mountainous passage and was about to drive straight off the cliff. Shavarsh jumped into the driver’s seat and managed to steer the bus away from the impending plunge, just half a meter from the side of the cliff. On this fateful day, Shavarsh saved 30 people.


Two years later, fate struck again. One morning on September 16th, 1976 he was just doing his usual run along the dam in Yerevan, when a large trolleybus that carried 92 passengers lost control and flew off the road into the freezing water. Most passengers fell unconscious – the bus sank about ten meters deep. Without a second of hesitation, Karapetyan leaped into the freezing water to save people. Diving to the depth of ten meters, he used his feet to break the back window of the trolleybus. He saved 20 peoples’ lives (he pulled out more than 20, but not everyone made it). He spent almost 20 minutes in the frigid water and accomplished thirty dives down to the wreckage. His brother – Kamo Karapetyan – a swimmer as well, took care of the injured as Shavarsh brought them up to the surface.


After his thirtieth dive, Shavarsh lost consciousness. The courageous act has cost him dearly; he incurred heavy two-sided pneumonia and blood contamination from the polluted water. Doctors weren't sure if Shavarsh would ever recover. His life was hanging by a thread. He remained unconscious for 46 days. When he finally recovered, his professional career was at an end. Experts now agree that nobody but Shavarsh could've done what he has done. Bystanders that watched Shavarsh bring people up to the surface said that his feet and back were full of glass shards.


He suffered from blood poisoning, inflammation of the lungs, and extreme nervous exhaustion. However, he went on to compete for the last time and had broken the world record for the eleventh time. Physical and mental trauma had eventually taken a toll on the man, and he had to retire from the sport. After that, he developed a strong aversion for water and went to work in an electronics factory. He did not want to go near the water again, he said.


Due to Soviet politics, Karapetyan’s achievement wasn't immediately recognized. Shavarsh's name became a household name in the USSR on October 12th, 1982, when Komsomolskaya Pravda published an article on Shavarsh's feat, entitled “The Underwater Battle of the Champion.” The publication revealed that he was the rescuer, and he received over 75,000 letters.


His heroism does not end there. On February 19, 1985, he just happened to be near a burning building (the Soviet Armenian sports hall), which had people trapped inside. He rushed in and began to pull people out without a second thought. Once again, he was severely injured. He had lost consciousness because he had inhaled toxic fumes. Everyone thought that he had passed, but a local cab driver felt his weak pulse and rushed him to the hospital. He stayed there for a long time recuperating from severe burns and smoke inhalation.


Later, Karapetyan was awarded a medal “For The Rescue of the Drowning” and the Order of the Badge of Honor. Additionally, he received a UNESCO “Fair Play” award for his heroism. A main-belt asteroid, 3027 Shavarsh, discovered by Nikolai Chernykh, was named after him.


Since 1993, Shavarsh Karapetyan has been living a simple life, owning and operating a shoe shop in Moscow called “Second Breath.” He often visits Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

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Thinking Humanity: Shavarsh Karapetyan: When The Word 'Hero' Is Not Enough
Shavarsh Karapetyan: When The Word 'Hero' Is Not Enough
Seventeen times world champion finswimmer, 13 times European champion and seven times Soviet champion. An eleven-time World Record-breaker. The remarkable man has a history of saving lives and facing his own mortality.
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