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Forty Years Later, Soviet Athlete's Life-Saving Heroics Remembered05:44
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Yerevan, the capital of Aermenia, was the site of a deadly trolleybus accident nearly 40 years ago. (Misha Japaridze/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Yerevan, the capital of Aermenia, was the site of a deadly trolleybus accident nearly 40 years ago. (Misha Japaridze/AP)

Nearly 40 years ago, a European swimming champion was out for a run in his home country of Armenia — then part of the U.S.S.R. — when a trolleybus went off the tracks and plunged into a nearby lake. Shavarsh Karapetyan dove into the lake and saved dozens of lives.

Carl Schreck chronicled that afternoon and its impact on Karapetyan’s life — and swimming career — in a piece for Grantland. Schreck joined Bill Littlefield on Only A Game.

BL: Before that day at the lake, the 23-year-old Karapetyan had won eight European swimming titles and set some world records along the way. So why was he running by himself in the Armenian capital that day instead of training with the Soviet team?

Several of those people were dead by the time he got them up, but he had no time and no possibility of figuring out who he was grabbing.

Carl Schreck

CS: He had been dropped from the Soviet national team. He thinks it’s because the Soviets wanted to feature some younger swimmers. He had also suffered an illness earlier in the year but says he was fully recovered. It’s unclear exactly why they dropped him from the team. What is clear is that he was extremely peeved and went out on a mission to train as hard as he could, which is why he was out running by the lake that day.

BL: Well, take us through what happened that afternoon at Lake Yerevan at the end of Karapetyan’s 13-mile run?

CS: He was on the home stretch, and he came up onto a bridge right next to Lake Yerevan and all of a sudden he heard a commotion, looked to his left and saw that a trolleybus had sailed over the embankment, crashed into some cement at the base of the lake and rolled into the water.

He immediately stripped off his clothes. He swam out to the trolleybus — it was about 80 feet from shore — dove down to try to figure out if there was an open window or an open door. The area under water was just flooded with silt. It was just completely black. They couldn’t see anything, and so Karapetyan decided that he had to kick in a window. So he did what he described as a karate kick — bashed his leg through the window; shredded his leg — and managed to jostle a window loose and then just started reaching inside for anything that felt human.

Finswimmers use flippers to help them swim below water. Karapetyan's training included breathing techniques that he needed to dive to the sunken trolleybus over and over again. (Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
Finswimmers use flippers to help them swim below water. Karapetyan's training included breathing techniques that he needed to dive to the sunken trolleybus over and over again. (Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)

BL: According to your article, Karapetyan’s training helped him a lot in his rescue mission. But it wasn’t his classical swim training, was it?

CS: His sport was finswimming, which is a niche sport. So his training was specifically geared toward underwater swimming. And a lot of the work he did was outside of the water: a lot of very serious power training, a lot of running and also a lot of breathwork, specifically to hyperventilate before entering the water, which essentially — the hyperventilation makes you less likely to feel the urge to come up to breathe. So he was an expert on this breathing technique, which he utilized then when he dove into the water and proceeded to swim down to the trolleybus.

BL: Karapetyan had been retrieving bodies for more than 20 minutes when rescue workers told him to stop. They said, “Don’t kill yourself for nothing.” How real was the warning?

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CS: There were an estimated 90 passengers in the bus at the time. He knew they had a limited window to survive down there, which added some urgency to his mission. And so they determined after 20 minutes that no one else could possibly be alive down there.

At that point he had hauled up, he and his brother estimate, about 30 to 35 people. Several of those people were dead by the time he got them up, but he had no time and no possibility of figuring out who he was grabbing from the bus.

BL: So, some number of people were saved by this guy. It must have made Karapetyan a national hero.

CS: Well, you would think so given the act itself and the remarkable coincidence that possibly the world’s greatest underwater swimmer — in a country where a small percentage of the population can even swim — happened to be running by. But in fact, the Soviets as a rule hushed up any major accidents like this. The idea was that there’s no way a Soviet trolleybus could fall into the water.

BL: So, if they hushed up the accident obviously they hushed up the heroic act.

CS: Exactly, exactly. Even the classified government report that came out didn’t mention him at all.

BL: What happened next for Karapetyan? Did he ever get back to competitive swimming?

Even the classified government report that came out didn’t mention him at all.

Carl Schreck

He managed to stand up a couple weeks later and he did manage to get up and walk around and was back in the pool three months later. By the time he got back to training he absolutely despised the water. He said he wasn’t scared; he just hated it. But he pressed through. He’s an incredibly competitive man. And he fought through it and within a year had returned to the Soviet Championships and managed to set his 11th and final world record.

BL: What is Karapetyan doing these days and how does he remember the occurrences of that day?

CS: He runs businesses in Moscow. He’s lived in Moscow since the late 1980s. He’s told the story quite a bit. His story is pretty well known in the former Soviet Union and ... I get the impression he, in some respects, is a little tired of talking about it. All his friends call him a very modest man, which was my impression of him as well — so modest, in fact, when he was courting his soon-to-be wife in the early 1980s, he didn’t even tell her about the incident. She only learned about it when a Soviet reporter dug up the story six years after it happened and it then made it into the official Soviet press.

This segment aired on September 27, 2014.

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