16 July 2013, 13:33
2826 |

The Last Record

If Shavarsh Karapetian lived in Ancient Greece, he and his lifesaving deeds would have become a part of Greek mythology on the same scale as those of Hercules. His heroic acts saved the lives of countless, and it all happened in times of peace. All of that on top of his athletic achievements as a multiple record-holder and world champion finswimmer.

Close Encounter
The fire started at dawn, and the first passersby was watching in terror as the flames were taking over the structure of the athletic-concert complex on Tsitsernakaberd Hill. It seemed that on that February day of 1985, the city would lose the sports and arts complex that the citizens were so proud of – a magnificent modern structure built just a year earlier. The firefighters were already on site supported by volunteers. Shavarsh Karapetian was one of them.
He noticed the blaze as he was arriving at his workplace across the street. In such critical moments, some people turn the gears of their mind to autopilot – their reactions time up to the highest limits, and they act before the impulses reach their conscience. For him, human dignity prevailed over the basic instinct of survival. Shavarsh picked up the water hose from someone’s weakening hands and aimed the powerful water stream on the raging fires. He was amidst a scene of terror – people screaming, walls of the building collapsing, and the firefighters losing consciousness, choking on smoke. And then… an explosion.
Shavarsh could not recall how he had appeared in the intensive care unit of the hospital; he was unconscious when the emergency squad rushed him in.
Chronologically, that was the third of Shavarsh Karapetian’s heroic deeds. I started this article with the fire incident because it occurred long after the publication of my book about this amazing person, so naturally it was not included in it. Frankly, it seemed to me that there is something mystical in all of this – for some inexplicable reason Karapetian always happens to be the one who is “there” at “the site of the accident.”
The first of such incidents occurred in 1974 in Tsakhkadzor. This mountain resort was built as the Olympic training camp for the USSR athletic teams before the Olympic Games in Mexico. Numerous Soviet athletes and Olympic medalists trained there in conditions of high elevation. Among them were Shavarsh Karapetian and his teammates. On January 8, 1974, he was coming back to Yerevan from Olympic camp. The bus carried more than 30 passengers, many of whom were athletes, singing and joking. On one of the steep road curves, the driver stopped the bus because something went wrong with the engine. He got off the bus to check. At first no one noticed that the bus was slowly rolling down the slope since it was too noisy in the passenger’s cabin. Shavarsh was the first one who realized that the driver’s seat was empty. In the meantime, the bus was quickly gaining speed, inevitably approaching the edge of a deep canyon. Every second was crucial. Shavarsh broke the glass divider between the cockpit and the passengers’ salon with his elbow. He jumped into the driver’s seat and hit the brakes. It was no use, the brakes failed. A second more and the bus would have fallen off the cliff. But in just that same instance, Shavarsh turned the steering wheel toward the mountain slope. That was the only right decision and prevented a catastrophe that saved the lives of 30 people. Later, when he was asked how he managed to do that, Shavarsh famusly said, “It’s just that I was the closest to the cockpit…”

The Price of Seconds
The second time Shavarsh Karapetian happened to be at the epicenter of an extreme situation was in 1977. A trolleybus full of passengers was crossing a dam over the Yerevan Water Reservoir, which the citizens call “the sea.” No one will ever know why the street car abruptly turned sideways, crashed through a low barrier and fell into 20 meters of water. As I was looking through this voluminous case compiled by the investigative commission, the terrible picture of the accident passed before my eyes. The trolleybus dived into the water nose first, and there on the very bottom was the driver himself. It was impossible to tell the exact reasons why it happened, but the forensic experts established that the driver had a history of heart disease. His medical card also stated that he suffered from hypertension. It is possible that passing through the dam the driver lost consciousness, fell to the side and involuntarily turned the wheel.

At that same time Shavarsh Karapetian’s father, Vladimir, was driving home by the reservoir. He knew that his two sons were practicing there. He often visited them during their long practices, which sometimes lasted for four, even eight hours. That day Shavarsh and Kamo had a regular intensive practice. Shavarsh had just completed his usual 20-kilometer warm-up run (a champion’s warm-up), when he saw an unbelievable sight – a trolleybus plunging through the air. And a few seconds later, concentric water circles covered the top of the vehicle. In an article about Shavarsh, journalist Yevgeny Bocharov wrote: “It’s striking that it took him only a fraction of a second to come up with a decision, which became the most significant decision of his life. In the meantime, just like the rest of us, he spends many hours, sometimes weeks, on many far less significant decisions. But here – just an instant.” It is understandable, however, that these seconds for Shavarsh and Kamo were different from those for most people.
The fact that the two brothers were there at the water reservoir was pure coincidence. Just as it was when Shavarsh was the closest person to the driver’s seat in the bus in 1974. However, there is a legitimate explanation why the first people to arrive at the site of the accident were the two brothers. They were not professional runners, but they covered the distance to the location of the accident with the speed of sprinters, and seconds later they were in the water.
They were both equals and rivals in sports. The two brothers were the two best finswimmers and divers in the world, and it showed when they were needed most. Earlier that year Shavarsh said in an interview, “My strongest rival in sprint is my brother, Kamo.” The interview was right after he had set his tenth world record in finswimming. Kamo came in second, a second behind.
The trolleybus submerged into water ten meters deep. It’s hard to dive that deep without diving equipment, but the brothers had the ability to dive as deep as 30 meters. And the most crucial factor in that situation was speed.
Both brothers are world record holders in short distance finswimming. So it was just a coincidence that they were in the location of the accident in that particular moment of time. Everything else seemed carefully planned. The older brother immediately took command. “I will pull people out of the bus, you will take them from me.” An instant later Shavarsh dived into the complete darkness of the water. He had to be extremely quick and efficient. Everything, every breath of air in his lungs, every move, and mental commands he was giving himself, were quick and short. Holding to the poles of the trolleybus, he kicked out one of the large side windows and swam into the bus full of shocked and unconscious people.
Shavarsh reached as many people as he could find and quickly pulled them up to the surface. There Kamo grabbed the victims and pulled them to the safety boat. On that boat was their coach Liparit Almasakian, who was an expert scuba-diver and rescuer. He helped people to recover once they were in his hands. As for Shavarsh, he would take a big breath and dive in for the next victim. His only thoughts were, “I can’t waste any second. Save! Save as many people as possible.” He could not rely on anyone else, because no one else there knew how to dive to that depth. Some people tried, but did not succeed. Kamo himself could have tried to dive a couple of times, but then the rhythm of the two rescue teams would have been disrupted, and they would have lost the most important thing in this situation, their sense of security. Shavarsh was plunging underwater knowing that if something happened to him, Kamo would be there to help. Moreover, Kamo was taking each person not from the surface, but underwater. He already knew where to expect his brother, so he swam in his direction. And since he was less tired, he swam the last distance to the surface much faster than his brother. Those were the seconds they won, seconds the price of which lives were saved.
In the meantime, their father was watching them from the crowd on the shore. Each time his older son submerged, the father held his breath until Shavarsh appeared on the surface again. Later Vladimir said, “That day I died many times, but I also resurrected just as many times.”
Once Shavarsh came up to the surface to restore his lung ventilation, it became obvious that his body was completely cut and bruised by the sharp edges of the shattered window glass. But he dived in again. It took him 40 seconds each time to bring up the next injured victim, but this time a minute passed and he did not appear. Kamo dived in after him, 30 more seconds passed – no sight of either of them. Already thousands of people gathered on the shore watching the rescue operation. They stood there holding their collective breaths. And only when the two brothers appeared on the surface again did a sigh of relief pass over the crowd. Later, people learned what had happened underwater. A passenger, although unconscious, instinctively clutched to the feet of the rescuer, obstructing his movements.
The only thing to do in this situation on the part of the rescuer is to relax and stop any movements, then the drowning person will let go of the rescuer. That’s exactly what Shavarsh did. But each time he’d let go, the victim clung to his legs yet again, so Shavarsh had to start all over. Precious seconds were lost and the struggle became physically draining.
When the eighth and ninth victims were rescued, a line of ambulances was waiting on the shore. Doctors immediately provided first aid, CPR and a direct shot of adrenalin into the coronary muscle. Next, the injured were rushed straight to the hospital. It looked like a relay race: Shavarsh passed the rescued people to his brother, Kamo in turn passed them to his coach on the boat, and the coach lifted them to the emergency personnel on the shore.
In about ten minutes, the Karapetian brothers rescued 12 people.
Soon Shavarsh saw the cranes, equipment, militia, and the firefighters’ squads trying to pull the trolleybus out of the water. It took them some time to hook the cables and pull out the bus. Too much time. Thus, overcoming pain and exhaustion, he dived in over and over again. And, again in complete darkness, he tried to pull up the next motionless body. He pulled for several meters before he realized that something was wrong, that he was pulling up a passenger seat. “A human life could have been saved instead,” he thought with remorse.

In spite of Shavarsh’s determination to save them all, time was working against him. No matter how fast he rushed, people were dying inside. It was crucial to pull out the bus. So it was decided that he would help to attach the cable to the trolley. He had to break one more window, get into the passenger salon holding the metal cable, swim to the other side and get to the surface, pulling the heavy cable with him. Just as the dreadful trolley bus slowly appeared on the surface, gushing out dark water in all directions, Shavarsh lost consciousness.
It turned out he was much better in the water. As soon as he got out, he felt cramps in his legs. The abrupt temperature changes – running a distance of 20 kilometers, which heated up his body, then the endless submersions in cold water did
the damage.
Shavarsh was bedridden for 45 days. He had pneumonia and blood infections and a fever that lasted for a month and a half. All those days and nights his mother Hasmik was by his bedside. The thermometer showed 40 degrees Celsius most of the time. He gained consciousness only on the 46th day. He touched his legs and was astounded to discover that his strong muscular legs felt thin and weak. He tried to get up, but couldn’t. He asked his mother for a mirror, but she refused. He did not insist when he saw her tears. He could not understand what was going on for a long time.
The Karapetian brothers pulled more than 25 people out of the water, but only 20 were brought back to life. Many of them visited the Karapetians at home. They were told that Shavarsh was ill, but recovering. Many other rescued people learned that they were saved by the Karapetian brothers and their coach Liparit Almasakian only much later.
It was not surprising since people were brought to the hospital in an unconscious state. Even the doctors were not aware that all these people were saved by just one person with the support of two others. They were confident that people had been saved by a massive rescue operation executed by a team of professionals.
Then there’s that photograph in the special investigation commission’s file: a trolleybus coming up from the water. On the shore, several steps away there is a young man in a swimsuit, Shavarsh Karapetian. Examining closer, you can tell that he could hardly stand on his feet. Seconds later, he would fall unconscious.

The Gold Fish
Fifty days later Shavarsh finally stood up in the hospital room. On the 57th day he walked out of the hospital. Two months later he resumed his training sessions in the swimming pool. At the end of the third month, right before the New Year, he was at the training camp in Tsakhkadzor. In mid-March he decided to participate in the USSR Cup. No one knew the reason for his long absence.
During that time many international competitions took place. But the name of the much-celebrated athlete was not on the list of champions – or even the participants. I thought that perhaps the guy had just gone the distance, burned out, did his best in sports and left. Star athletes are like meteorites: a flash, a bright tail of the falling star, and then… they vanish without a trace. No one knew at that time what had happened to Shavarsh. The media remained silent for the next five years!
Neither did anyone know that the pneumonia had left scars on his lung tissue, and each breath caused him pain and severe coughing. Shavarsh was hiding it not only from his close friends and family, but also from himself. He longed to go back to the competitive sport, eager to win again. And more than anyone else, he came to the realization that this was the end of his sports career. He was hoping that in that last competition he would be able to compete with two of his adversaries for the championship, Anatoly Sergin and Anatoly Karazaev. However, the drawing set up the participants differently.
The scoreboard indicated that the world record time for the 400-meter swim with an aqualung was three minutes, 11.1 seconds. These statistics were repeated several times by the announcer, who also said that Sergin and Karazaev were the favorites to win because the celebrated champion Karapetian did not appear to be in athletic shape. After all, he had not participated for the last six months.
Shavarsh was concerned; the draw separated him from Sergin and Karazaev, which meant that he had to compete against his own time. He was also afraid to swim the distance in equal time with them. If that happened, he wouldn’t have the stamina to compete in an additional race. However, nobody was aware of his physical and mental state before the start – the last start of his swimming career.
The first race was led by the one of the most experienced sprinters in the world, Sergin. In the last few meters, they swam to loud cheers. All eyes were on the clock, which showed that he was beating the world record. When his time – three minutes, 11 seconds – appeared on the board next to the three minutes, 11.1 seconds of the world record, fans jumped up from their seats in celebration. Then it was announced that Karazaev would swim in the same lane in the second race. From then on the excited audience remained standing. It was an extraordinary chance to witness two world records happening in the same lane. Each splash of the monofin closed the gap between the swimmer’s time and the world record.
On the last turn, it became obvious that there would be a new world record. As the swimmers reached the finish line, the board showed a new world record: three minutes, 09.5 seconds.
Shavarsh Karapetian had to start in the third race. He also had to swim in the same lane as the two previous competitors. His main concern was his breathing. He was afraid his lungs would fail him, and he would start coughing, or that an allergic rash would spread all over his body. It had happened frequently after September’s incident. Allergies prevented him from spending a long time in the water, which was ironic for a man who was called “The Gold Fish” by the media.
However, history has known many such incidents. Beethoven lost his hearing, the famous Russian artist Vrubel – his eyesight, the world record champion in high jump Broumel, broke his leg, and now a superstar swimmer could not spend a long time in the water. After just 400 meters, he suffered an allergy attack. There was only one solution – to pass these last 400 meters as quickly as possible. Shavarsh swam faster than ever. He didn’t hear the noise of the audience. He didn’t even hear Kamo, who knew better than anyone else about his brother’s supreme abilities, but also knew his health problems.
So when Shavarsh touched the wall of the lane, Kamo jumped into the water. He noticed the red spots on his shoulders and knew Shavarsh would not be able to get out without help. The brothers hugged in the water. Finally, holding close to his brother, Shavarsh gave in to the asthma attack. The noise from the audience didn’t stop. Fans tossed flowers into the water. Shavarsh could not understand what was going on. He didn’t know yet that he had set a new world record: three minutes, 06.2 seconds. It was his 11th world record, his last one, and the world celebrated with him. He was honored by the millions, but especially by those 20 people whose saved lives became the highest of the Karapetian brothers’ achievements.


Shavarsh Karapetian
• Born on May 19, 1953 in Kirovakan, presently Vanadzor.
• Seven times USSR champion, 15 times winner of the USSR Cup, 11 world records; 17 times world champion, 13 times European Champion.
• Received the “Fair Play” honor by the International Olympic Committee.
• After retiring from competitive sports, he moved from Armenia to the United States, and then in 1993 to Russia, where he started his shoe repair store “Second Breath.”
• Currently the Honorary President of the Russian Association of Underwater Swimming.
• The junior competitions in diving are named after him.
• In 2007, the charity organization Shavarsh Karapetian Foundation was established.
• A main belt asteroid discovered by Nikolai Chernykh in 1986 was named “3027 Shavarsh” in Karapetian’s honor.

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