This mild man would never speak about the night he rescued more than thirty people from a frozen river. This was not the first time that Karapetyan had saved a life and it would not be the last.
Karapetyan was born in Armenia on 19th May 1953; at an early age, he showed promise as an athlete.
His father encouraged this passion; Karapetyan started training for a career in gymnastics. However, when the coach commented that he had begun too late in life to be a champion, Karapetyan looked for another career.
The next sport he tried was swimming, but the well-built young man lacked the flexibility to become a traditional swimmer. So instead, he opted for the sport of finswimming. Karapetyan was a natural for this with his muscular build and limitless energy.
Finswimming involves competitors racing underwater with fins strapped to their feet. It is a race of endurance and strength. Longer races may use snorkels and tanks, but the athlete needs to hold their breath for shorter races.
Karapetyan was determined to make his family proud, so he started a vigorous training regime. He would run up to eighteen miles daily with a backpack filled with sand. He would jog with boards strapped to his feet and practised holding his breath for longer periods.
The hard work paid off; in 1972, Karapetyan won a gold medal in the fifty and hundred meter sprints.
It's safe to say we'll see this young athlete from Armenia at many more major championships. - Soviet Magazine
Around the same time that Karapetyan was gaining success in the sport in 1974, he travelled to a sports centre to train. Unfortunately, the bus broke down and the driver went to check the engine.
The driver, however, forgot to apply the handbrake. As a result, the bus started to roll back towards a gaping gorge. Karapetyan charged into the driver's cabin, having to break in and apply the brake just in time.
The young man saved thirty people from crashing into a deep gorge, almost certainly being killed. But, this was a minor rescue compared to what was coming next.
On 16th September 1976, Karapetyan was in Armenia training. Unfortunately, his progress was not what he wanted in the sport, so he was training hard, running around Lake Yerevan with a backpack of sand. Alongside him was his brother Kamo, also a swimmer.
Karapetyan stated it sounded like a bomb going off on a peaceful summer night. He watched as a trolleybus (tram) came off the roadway and plunged straight into the lake.
Witnesses would later give contrasting stories as to what happened. Some stated that a man had attacked the driver, resulting in him losing control; others would say he had a heart attack at the wheel.
When Karapetyan saw the bus enter the water, his instinct took over. He ran to the lake, took a deep breath and dived into the freezing water. Reaching the bus, he kicked the back window in, cutting his leg.
This did not stop him; he returned several times to the bus, dragging survivors out and passing them to his brother before diving again for another passenger. The passengers effectively trapped in an iron coffin.
The most difficult thing was to knock out the rear window of the trolleybus, The broken glass had sliced his leg. The pain was unbearable… but then I did not think about it - I understood that there was little time. - Karapetyan 1982.
In total, he dived forty times, rescuing thirty-seven people, each dive taking twenty-five seconds. Rescue workers begged him to stop, yet still, he kept diving. On his last rescue, he emerged with a cushion, thinking it was a person. He had grown faint from the lack of oxygen and knew it was time to stop.
I had nightmares about that cushion for a long time, I could have saved someone else's life. - Karapetyan
His sole actions rescued thirty-seven people, twenty of which survived. Another nine also managed to escape unaided after Karapetyan smashed the window.
End of a career
Karapetyan went home that night but fell seriously ill. A combination of the cut to his leg and the freezing water he had dived in caused his fever to spike. He was taken to hospital that evening and spent several days fighting for his life.
Once recovered, he returned to finswimming, but the lake had permanently damaged his lungs. He also had a new aversion to water. He was not frightened of it but just hated it.
He managed to compete for a handful of times and set a world record in the four hundred meter event before retiring. During the last swim, Kamo walked beside him, watching to see if he would need to rescue his brother if he suddenly became unconscious.
When he retired at twenty-four, he had set eleven world records, held seventeen championship, thirteen European and seven Soviet titles.
None of his followers had found out about the rescue that ended his career, as it was not reported. However, this did not stop Karapetyan from attempting one more rescue.
In 1985, Karapetyan was passing Yerevan's Sports Centre when he noticed it was on fire. With no thought, once again, for his own safety, he raced into the flames, pulling people out. Despite being burnt in the process, he carried on helping others out of the burning building.
Life after swimming
Karapetyan settled in Moscow with his family. It took many years for the Soviet Union to recognise the rescue at Yerevan's lake. Then, in 1982, he finally got the recognition he deserved.
The Soviet Union awarded him the Order of the Badge of Honor, naming an asteroid after this remarkable man. Furthermore, in 2014, he was given the massive honour of carrying the Olympic flame for Armenia and the Soviet Union.
Today Karapetyan coaches his son Tigray in the hopes that he will follow in his father's athletic achievements. He also heads the Shavarsh Karapetyan Foundation, which organises competitions to encourage a new generation of swimmers.
Karapetyan is shy about calling himself a hero and states that there are many examples of these events in history. His advice to the world is as follows:
Kindness is nurtured by love. We have to teach our children to love each other from the very beginning. -
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