One Thursday in September 1976, Shavarsh Karapetyan was reaching the end of a 13-mile training run. Strapped to the dedicated athlete’s back was a rucksack containing 45 pounds of sand. Suddenly he heard an ear-splitting crash. Looking round, he realized a bus had plunged into the depths of Lake Yerevan. Unless they could be rescued quickly, the passengers were clearly doomed.
Shavarsh Vladimiri Karapetyan was born in the Armenian city of Kirovakan, since renamed Vanadzor, in May 1953. At the time, Armenia was part of the Soviet Union, although it became an independent republic in 1991. Karapetyan was his parents’ first-born child, and was followed by two brothers, Kamo and Anatoly.
The young Karapetyan was brought up in a bungalow until his family moved to the Armenian capital, Yerevan, in 1966. His father Vladimir had dreams of his sons becoming athletes, and Shavarsh joined a gymnastics school in Yerevan. It was overseen by a former Olympic champion, Albert Azaryan.
From his early teens, Azaryan and the other trainers were pleased with both Karapetyan’s commitment and his physical prowess. But even at that young age, it was already too late for the youth to join the top ranks of competitive gymnasts. But then a trainer came up with the idea of converting Karapetyan into a competitive swimmer.
This turned out to be a great move. Karapetyan enjoyed success in Armenian junior competitions, swimming both front crawl and backstroke. But swimming was not destined to be his sport either. When he was 17, he was told he had reached the limits of his abilities, and was dropped from the top rank of Armenian swimmers.
For the ambitious young Karapetyan this setback was a hammer blow. But then another mentor came into his life, a coach called Liparit Almasakyan. This man had helped to establish competitive underwater swimming in Armenia. The discipline included an esoteric sport called finswimming.
Knowing that Karapetyan was a strong swimmer, Almasakyan offered to train him as a finswimmer. The young man jumped at the chance. Finswimming involves underwater or surface swimming while wearing a pair of flippers or a monofin. The latter is rather like a mermaid’s tail. Competitors swim unaided, or with snorkels or oxygen tanks for longer events.
Karapetyan took to this new discipline like, well, a duck to water. Despite it being an aquatic sport, a lot of the hard work actually took place on dry land. Strength training was the key to success and Karapetyan would run up to 18 miles each day carrying a rucksack laden with sand.
Almasakyan came up with some improbably fiendish training methods. He attached timber boards to langlauf ski boots and made Karapetyan run wearing the eccentric footwear. At times, the coach would get his protégé to run up steep slopes with one of the other swimmers on his back.
And a key part of Karapetyan’s schooling was learning to cope with staying underwater for protracted periods of time without breathing. This was a skill that was to serve the athlete very well in an unpredictable way, as we’ll see. The unconventional training, as weird as it may have been, certainly paid off.
Success for Karapetyan in his new sport came in 1972 at the European championships, held that year in Moscow. Now aged 19, the super-fit Karapetyan swept aside the opposition to take gold in the 50-meter and 100-meter sprint races. A Soviet publication of the time, Underwater Athlete, wrote, “It’s safe to say we’ll see this young athlete from Armenia at many more major championships.”
And Karapetyan was to dominate his chosen sport in the following years. He broke world record after world record and eventually reached a tally of eight gold medals. But in 1976, Karapetyan was inexplicably left out of the Soviet team for the upcoming finswimming world championships, the first ever to be held.
At the age of only 23, you might have thought that Karpetyan was at the peak of his abilities, with the potential to achieve much more in the finswimming world. Why he was suddenly dropped has never been properly explained. But in any case, that brings us back to that September day in 1976 when Karpetyan was running along the edge of Lake Yerevan.
As we’ve seen, Karpetyan was nearing the end of a grueling training run when a trolley bus crashed off a bridge into the lake. Realizing what was unfolding in front of him, he ran to the lakeside, stripped down to his underwear and without a second thought, dived into the water. His brother Kamo had been with him on the run and joined him in the lake.
The crowded bus, which had a capacity of up to 92 passengers, had finished up some 80 feet from the bank in water that was around 30 feet deep. Karpetyan dived down into the murky depths, with visibility virtually nil because of the mud that had been stirred up. He told Kamo to stay on the surface.
Making his way round the bus, Karpetyan found the back window and with a mighty kick smashed it out, cutting himself in the process. Without a thought for his own safety, Karpetyan entered the bus searching for survivors. He found one and dragged the stricken passenger to the surface. Some small boats had now arrived and Kamo helped the survivor aboard one.
Incredibly, Karpetyan dived down more than 20 times, perhaps as many as 35 times. In the end, he saved the lives of 20 people. Some of those he brought to the surface had perished. He continued diving down into the lake for 20 minutes. Eventually, rescue workers persuaded him to stop. No one else could be alive after the length of time they’d been in the water.
Years after, one 17-year-old survivor, Zhanna Avetisyan, spoke to a Russian reporter. “I understood that I was dying and remembered my mother, father, brothers and sisters,” she said. “I didn’t see the person who saved me because he held me from behind when he dragged me up. But I remember his hand well – a strong, muscular hand. I could feel I was being pulled somewhere, and then I blacked out again.”
At the time, Karapetyan received virtually no recognition for his heroics. Back then, the Soviets preferred not to admit that such an accident had even occurred. Although he continued with his sporting career, winning more medals, the cold polluted waters had taken their toll and he was never physically the same. It was six years before an article in a national Russian newspaper told the world about Karapetyan’s incredible and courageous act.
Bizarrely, Karapetyan enjoyed some fame in 2014, when he was among those selected to carry the Olympic torch for the Sochi Winter Games. As he was carrying it towards the Kremlin, the flame went out. Ever resourceful, Karapetyan got a bystander to reignite it with a cigarette lighter. The story went viral, and Karapetyan revealed a dry sense of humor. He told the Grantland website, “I was chosen to carry the Olympic flame into the Kremlin. They trusted an Armenian with the job, and it went out.” This larger-than-life character is still with us today, living in Moscow.