The Plunge

Sep 17, 2014

Shavarsh Karapetyan trained his eyes on the asphalt as he rounded the corner. He had 45 pounds of sand strapped to his back, facing the final push on a 13-mile run fueled by the fury he’d been nursing ever since Soviet coaches dropped him from the national swim team. Karapetyan, after all, had captured eight European swimming titles and notched numerous world records for the USSR. And at 23 years old, he hadn’t yet reached his athletic prime. Who knows what political maneuvering had kept him off the team that competed in the world championship weeks earlier? Maybe the higher-ups in Moscow wanted to deepen their reserves of elite athletes by developing younger swimmers. Maybe they resented Karapetyan’s dominance because he was Armenian, from the fringes of the empire. Karapetyan was raised during the height of the Cold War and cherished competing for the hammer and sickle. But for now, all he could do was train and wait for an opportunity to win back his spot. So he kept running as the sun set over Armenia’s capital of Yerevan on September 16, 1976.

Just as Karapetyan reached the bridge, the sound of metal smashing against concrete tore through the cool evening air. He looked toward the commotion, through the blizzard of dust that had kicked up from the hillside below, and saw a trolleybus disappear below the surface of Lake Yerevan. Its two electric trolley poles poked up from the water like antennae. If Karapetyan gave any thought to his next move, he doesn't remember it. He sprinted down the hill, ditched the weighted backpack, stripped to his skivvies, and dove into the lake.

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