Shavarsh Karapetyan: The swimmer who sacrificed himself to save the lives of 20 people

Shavarsh Karapetyan: From a world champion to a real-life superhero. 

  • In 1976, Shavarsh Karapetyan, then 23, saved 20 people from drowning after a trolleybus crashed into the freezing waters of Yerevan Lake. 
  • Karapetyan was a finswimming world champion with a total of 37 gold medals. 
  • The athlete’s outstanding career was done due to the severe injuries he suffered while saving the passengers.

A selfless act of heroism turned the Soviet athlete from a finswimming world champion with 37 gold medals to a life-saving superhero.

Credits: D. Prants/TASS

Today, Shavarsh Karapetyan, 67, is a retired finswimmer with a brilliant athletic career. He is a 17-time world champion, 13-time European champion, and a 10-time world record-breaker.

But on September 16, 1976, the Armenian athlete became a living legend. And not because of his remarkable sports achievements, but because he saved 20 people from drowning.

On that harrowing day, one of Yerevan’s trolleybuses fell from a dam wall.

The vehicle had gone out of control and crashed into the bottom of the Yerevan Lake some 25 meters (80 ft) offshore at a depth of 10 meters (33 ft). The exact cause of the accident is still a mystery.

Ar that time, Karapetyan, then 23, was training with his brother Kamo, also a finswimmer, alongside the reservoir. The sportsmen had just completed a 20km(12mi) run when they saw the sinking trolleybus with 92 passengers on board.

Credits: Gerbert Bagdasaryan/TASS

Shavarsh immediately jumped into the arctic cold water, broke the back window of the vehicle with his legs, and started bringing people to the top. On the other side, his brother helped them get to the shore.

The Soviet champion managed to save 20 people from certain death.

Sadly, although he pulled 46 people out of the freezing water, only less than half of them survived. After paramedics arrived at the scene, they ordered Karapetyan to stop trying to save the rest, as there was no chance of any remaining passengers being alive.

At that point, the finswimmer was beginning to lose consciousness as a result of the inhumane temperatures and the injuries he got from the broken glass.

Talking to, Karapetyan explained:

“It was scary at first. It was so loud as if a bomb went off. I almost drowned several times. I could imagine the agony of those 92 people and I knew how they would die.”

Unfortunately, the champion’s fearless act cost him his athletic career. For several days, he was in grave danger. The combination of cold water and multiple lacerations from glass shards led to pneumonia and blood poisoning. He remained hospitalized for 45 days, after which his career as a finswimmer was over.

For his heroism, Karapetyan was awarded the Order of the Badge of Honor. 

Credits: Photolure

Although the Soviet government could honor the athlete with the more prestigious Hero of the Soviet Union award, rumors said officials wanted to downplay his selfless deed. In one interview, the retired finswimmer commented:

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

In 1982, Karapetyan was finally recognized for his exceptional nobility, when his story was published in the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. For six years, people were oblivious to his noteworthy feat.

However, saving 20 people from the freezing waters of Yerevan Lake was no the first, nor the last time the medalist saved lives. Eventually, both Armenia and Russia acknowledged Karapetyan’s heroic deeds.

In 1986, they even named an asteroid in his honor. It was the “3027 Shavarsh,” which was discovered by astronomers at the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory. He also got the World Fair Play Prize from UNESCO, and in 2014, he carried the Winter Olympics torch.

Credits: Oleg Makarov/Sputnik

Did you know about Shavarsh Karapetyan’s selfless act of heroism? Leave a comment to let us know what you think of this extraordinary man. 

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