Category Archives: Unsung Heroes

Shavarsh Karapetyan: The Underwater Battle of the Champion

By Sharon Novikov, Matt Rosenthal, & Russell Pine

Shavarsh Karapetyan is a retired Soviet Armenian finswimmer. He is an 11-time World Record holder, 17-time World Champion, 13-time European Champion and 7-time Soviet Champion.

Despite his prolific accomplishments in the water, Karapetyan is much more well- known in the former USSR for his heroic, self-sacrificing actions on September 16, 1976. Just as he finished a 12 mile training run with his brother alongside the Yerevan Lake in Yerevan, Armenia, a trolleybus veered out of control, fell from the dam wall, and crashed into the reservoir, 80 feet from shore and 33 feet deep into the water. Karapetyan swam to the bus, and despite almost zero visibility in the dirty water, broke the back window of the bus with his legs and began pulling people out.

The trolleybus was crowded with as many as 92 passengers and Karapetyan knew he had little time, spending approximately 30-35 seconds for each person he saved. Karapetyan managed to rescue 20 people (he picked up many more, but 20 of them survived), before the combined effects of the freezing water and wounds from broken glass rendered him unconscious, where he remained for 45 days. The damages sustained from his selfless, heroic act included subsequent sepsis (due to the presence of raw sewage in the lake water), and lung complications, ending his athletic career. Today’s experts agree that no one but Shavarsh could have been physically able to do what did, and the passengers on the bus are lucky that he was there when the crash happened.

Karapetyan’s feat was not immediately and widely recognized. The photos from the accident scene were censored and released to the public only two years later, and the first newspaper article about this accident and Shavarsh’s heroic rescue actions was published six long years after the incident. The publication revealed that he was the rescuer, making his name a household name in the USSR. Subsequently, he received about 60,000 letters and was awarded a medal “For the Rescue of the Drowning”, the Order of the Badge of Honor, and a UNESCO “Fair Play” award for his heroism.

To this day, Karapetyan doesn’t consider his act as heroic or extraordinary. When asked how he managed to do what he did, he humbly replied, “I was simply closer to the crash than anyone else.” He also admitted that he would have rather died than not jump into the water that day. That was his only choice. He simply did what he knew was right, what he was supposed to do in such situation, no matter how difficult and dangerous it was.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Karapetyan’s feat is that he wasn’t satisfied with the number of people he managed to save. Later describing the incident, he said, “I knew that I could only save so many lives, I was afraid to make a mistake. It was so dark down there that I could barely see anything. One of my dives, I accidentally grabbed a seat instead of a passenger… I could have saved a life instead. That seat still haunts me in my nightmares.” Karapetyan managed to save the lives of 20 strangers in the dark, toxic waters, and he’s still haunted by the 21st he could have saved instead of the seat cushion.

Incredibly, Karapetyan found himself in another heroic situation nine years later. On February 19, 1985, he happened to be near a burning building with many people trapped inside. Without a second of hesitation, he ran into the building and began pulling people out to safety. Again, he suffered serious personal injury, this time in the form of severe burns to his body, and spent many weeks recovering in the hospital.

When his wounds healed and he felt better, Shavarsh got back to practices and managed to set yet another world record swimming with a scuba set for a 0.25 mile distance in 3 minutes and 6.2 seconds. This was his eleventh and last world record. He couldn’t proceed with his athletic career, as his injuries severely impaired his health, and he was forced to leave his outstanding sports career behind.

Karapetyan made a great moral contribution that was only possible through his exceptional swimming ability. His heroic act was one of incredible personal sacrifice and valor. While he doesn’t follow the typical monomythic hero path, his courageous behavior, coupled with an admirable sense of humility, exemplifies the heroic definition of someone who makes great contributions that require both great morality and great ability.

Throughout his life, Shavarsh never sought recognition and never claimed any credit for his super-heroic acts. After leaving his sports career he has been living a simple life, working as a school principal and raising his three children. Today he owns and operates a small shoe repair shop in Moscow called “Second Breath.”

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Sharon Novikov, Matt Rosenthal, & Russell Pine are undergraduate students at the University of Richmond. They wrote this essay as part of their course requirement while enrolled in Dr. Scott Allison’s Social Psychology class.

Hannah Taylor: The Hero with a Heart

“If we never give up, and care enough for each other, we can do anything.”

-Hannah Taylor, 2006

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By Kelsea Starr, Mike Rocco, & Rachel DeRosa

Often, the road to  heroism begins with a powerful personal experience. Such was the case with inspirational Canadian teenager Hannah Taylor. As a 5-year-old, Hannah witnessed a homeless man eating from a garbage can in the cold of winter in Winnipeg, Canada. Deeply confused and saddened by this image, Hannah began inundating her mother with questions about what she saw. She wanted to know how and why this could happen.

With the clear-minded innocence of a 5-year-old, she asked her mother, “If everyone shared what they had, could that cure homelessness?” For about a year following this event, Hannah’s curiosity and sadness did not cease. She continued asking various family members about homelessness, a concept she simply could not begin to wrap her mind around.

One day Hannah’s mother suggested that perhaps Hannah should do something about this issue so that her “heart would not feel so sad.” The next day, Hannah approached her first grade teacher and asked if she could speak to her class about homelessness, what she had learned about the issue, and make possible suggestions for what they could do as a class to help. Hannah and her classmates proceeded to organize a bake sale and clothing drive from which proceeds would benefit local homeless shelters.

Upon seeing the success of this event, Hannah decided that her contributions would not stop there. In 2004, 8-year-old Hannah founded The Ladybug Foundation, a registered charity with the mission to end homelessness and alleviate the stigma associated with homeless people. She wanted others to understand that homeless people are not to be feared but are simply “great people wrapped in old clothes, with sad hearts.”

She selected the ladybug as her foundation’s mascot, as it is said to represent good luck. Hannah felt that good luck was not only crucial in her mission to help the homeless, but that this luck is also greatly needed by those in poverty. The foundation raises money to assist reputable charities throughout Canada which meet many of the needs of people who are homeless. As stated by 8-year-old Hannah at the time of the foundation’s creation, the goals of The Ladybug Foundation are as follows:

1. “To teach people that people who are homeless are just like you and me. They just need us to love them and care for them.”

2. “To teach everyone to treat people who are homeless like family because if you do that you will love them in all the right ways and care for them in all the right ways.”

3. “To teach people that no one should ever eat from a garbage can or live without a bed or a home and let them know that there are people that have to because they have no choice.”

4. “To ask every person that will listen to help however they can to make life for people who are homeless better.”

5. “To teach people that everyone can make a difference in the lives of others.”

Since 2004, Hannah has spoken to over 175 schools and organizations. She has traveled throughout Canada, the U.S., Sweden, and Singapore, striving to educate the general public and bring dignity to the homeless population. She has also hosted a series of luncheons with various top business executives and community leaders across Canada to gain fundraising support. In 2007 Hannah published a children’s book called Ruby’s Hope, which further emphasizes the importance of helping those in need. Through her efforts,  Hannah has raised over $2 million toward providing shelter, food, and safety for homeless people.

Hannah’s humanitarian efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 2007 she was awarded the Brick Award by the DoSomething! Foundation, which is presented to people under the age of 25 who have made a significant contribution to the lives of others. In that same year, Hannah also became the youngest person ever to receive Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women Award. In honor of her great accomplishments, an emergency shelter has been named after her in Winnipeg, known as “Hannah’s Place.”

Hannah’s mission to help others continues to this day. She has founded a separate charity, called The Ladybug Foundation Education Program, implemented in various schools throughout Canada. This foundation provides resources to empower youth to discover what they are passionate about, get involved, and make a positive change.

Hannah’s story is inspiring and heroic, as it displays that with motivation and perseverance anyone can make a meaningful difference in the world, no matter how old you are. All you have to do care.

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Kelsea Starr, Mike Rocco, & Rache DeRosa are undergraduate students at the University of Richmond. They wrote this essay as part of their course requirement while enrolled in Dr. Scott Allison’s Social Psychology class.

Deborah Sampson: A Patriot By Any Other Name

Sampson_2By Rick Hutchins

Freedom and independence were matters of conviction for the soldiers of the Continental Army who fought and won the American Revolution. For Deborah Sampson, that conviction ran deeper than most and her war was fought on two fronts. Her victories speak across the centuries and have no less meaning in the modern world.

Despite being descended from both William Bradford and Myles Standish, Deborah endured a childhood of poverty and deprivation. When her father vanished at sea, she was sold into indentured servitude, which remained her lot until she turned eighteen. Subsequently, her mother arranged for her marriage to a wealthy man, but Deborah had other ideas.

At this time, the War of Independence was in full swing and Deborah wanted to do her part for her country. Since women were not allowed to serve in the military, she disguised herself as a man and adopted the name of her dead brother to enlist. She was attached to the 4th Massachusetts Regiment as Robert Shurtleff.

As Robert, Deborah saw active combat on a number of occasions and suffered several injuries, including serious wounds to her head and leg. While her head injury was treated by medics, she was too fearful of having her identity as a woman exposed to allow them to Sampson_1tend to her leg. She saw to this herself, removing one musket ball; unfortunately, she was not able to remove a second musket ball, which remained embedded in her leg, causing her difficulties for the rest of her life. Following these injuries, Deborah was promoted and assigned as the aide de camp of General John Patterson.

Toward the end of the war, Deborah returned to combat duty for mop-up operations and was stricken with fever. Unconscious, she was treated by Doctor Barnabas Binney, who quickly discovered her true sex. However, he did not betray her; in fact, he took her to his home, where he cared for her with the help of his family.

When the time came for her to be discharged, Doctor Binney gave her a letter to be delivered to General Patterson, which disclosed her circumstances. The general accepted this revelation with composure and, based upon his testimonial, as well as the testimonials of the other officers under whom she served, Deborah was given an honorable discharge from the Continental Army by General Henry Knox and Commander-In-Chief George Washington.

Her life as a veteran of the Revolution was equally remarkable. In the years following the war, she supported her family by becoming the first female lecturer in American history, 9780396073437billing herself as The American Heroine. Like most other veterans, she had to petition the government for her back pay and pension. The Massachusetts legislature and Governor John Hancock approved her back pay, with interest. With the advocacy of her friend Paul Revere (who also supported her with loans in times of trouble), she was awarded a full military pension and land by the Congress of the United States. Upon her death, her husband was granted a widow’s pension.

Deborah Sampson is the official heroine of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. No truer patriot ever lived. She not only participated in the birth of her nation, on peril of her life, but she embodied principles of equality that modern patriots still strive to achieve.

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Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and has been an avid admirer of heroism since the groovy 60s. In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on

This is Hutchins’ tenth guest blog post here.  His first two, on astronaut and scientist Mae Jemison and the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards, can be found in our book Heroic Leadership.

Survivors of Trauma: Heroes Emerging From the Darkness

By Lisa Compton

As I trauma therapist, I have the privileged experience of working with people I consider true heroes — those who have been through painful traumatic events and find the courage to continue living a productive life.  Trauma survivors are some of the bravest people I know.  Counseling those that have experienced trauma is both rewarding and challenging for the therapist.

As I sit with client after client that has survived various types of trauma, I am in awe of the depth of our experiences as trauma counselors.  The most severely wounded and hurting are entrusted into our care.  Their painful memories and broken spirits seek out our “expertise” often as a last hope to make sense of the chaos that surrounds the human existence.

The clients that become fixated in our own minds and trigger our countertransference are the ones who have suffered the most extreme of what this earth has to offer.  Our curiosity is often peaked by their remarkably horrifying stories and our minds sent into a whirlwind of pondering, “Could this ever happen to me?”

Treatment starts with a cry within our own spirits — what do I have to offer this client that will ease the pain, and is easing the pain even possible? We rely on our past successes with wounded clients to combat the helplessness we feel as we sit passively witnessing their trauma narratives.  We are not able to help all of them. The threat of suicides lingers in the therapeutic air as the ultimate failure of treatment.

However, there are those who are heroically able to overcome the odds.  There is a hope for even the most extreme cases that the human soul can thrive after experiencing the deepest wounds.  It is based on this hope that we ask the client to rip off the scab that has provided a barrier of protection and share with us the cuts that run to their core.  An intimacy of trust develops between them and us.  Our small office with a chair and sofa transforms into sacred ground where the evil that was meant to destroy them becomes overtaken by the power of healing and survival.

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Lisa Compton is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Trauma Specialist.  She was once a student of Scott Allison’s at the University of Richmond.

Chiune Sugihara: The Hero Who Didn’t Walk Away

By Jesse Schultz

There is a surprisingly profound line towards the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  It is uttered by Professor Dumbledore, who says “It takes great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends”. This idea is particularly true in warfare where actions by enemy troops are vilified, while actions by friends and allies are often excused or ignored. We see this phenomenon play out even today as the United States struggles with whether “enhanced interrogation” techniques are legal and ethical, and with the legitimacy of killing civilians during drone strikes.

This was a situation facing a man named Chiune Sugihara in the waning years of Imperial Japan when he bore witness to the beginning of one of the most abhorrent acts of evil ever committed.  Born in Yaotsu, Japan on January 1, 1900, Chiune Sugihara was raised in a middle-class rural family. His physician father had wished him to follow in his footsteps but Chiune purposely failed the required exams and instead majored in the English language and passed the Foreign Ministry Scholarship exam. He was soon recruited by the Japanese Foreign Ministry and sent to China.

It was in China that hints of his future acts of heroism would come to light. During this time Japan had invaded China and the mistreatment of the locals was commonplace. In protest of the way the Chinese were being treated, Chiune resigned his post as Deputy Foreign Minister in Manchuria.

In 1939 Chiune was then sent to the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania. On September 1st of that year Nazi Germany invaded Poland and the persecution of Jews began almost immediately. By 1940 Jewish refugees from Poland and from within Lithuania itself began to seek ways to flee the country. This required visas and many countries were refusing to issue them. Japan itself had stringent requirements that the refugees did not meet. Chiune inquired to his superiors three times requesting instructions, but in all cases requests to issue the visas were declined.

It might have been easier to simply walk away and do nothing but instead, in July of 1940, against orders, Sugihara started issuing visas and even directly negotiated with officials of the Soviet Union to allow the refugees to pass through Russia on their way to Japan. He continued to write visas, reportedly spending 18-20 hours a day until September 4th when the Consulate was closed. During the night prior to the closing, Chiune and his wife Yukiko spent the entire night writing visas, and Chiune was reportedly even preparing them en route to the train station where he threw them out the window of the train to waiting refugees as it left the station. In a final act of desperation he resorted to throwing blank pages with the Consulate seal and his signature, which could be filled out later.

The exact number of Jews saved by Chiune Sugihara is not known but estimates put the number around 6,000. By comparison Oskar Schildler saved around 1,100 to 1,200 lives.  Chiune’s actions seemed to have given him few accolades immediately after the war. The Japanese foreign office asked him to resign due to downsizing —  though some have suspected it might have stemmed from his activities in Lithuania. To make a living he began selling light bulbs door-to-door and later he found work in an export company.

Finally in 1968 he was located by one of his beneficiaries and later visited Israel. In 1985 he was awarded the Righteous Among the Nations award by the Israeli government. In June of the next year Chiune Sugihara passed away in Kamakura, Japan.  Today he has streets in Lithuania named after him, an asteroid (25893 Sugihara), a synagogue in Massachusetts, a memorial at his birthplace and in Lithuania, and a memorial in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. It seems inaccurate to refer to Chiune Sugihara as an “unsung hero” due to his many honors but many more should hear his story.

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The author, Jesse Schultz, has contributed several other essays on heroism here, including Love Thy Enemy: Opposing Heroes and Night Witches: the Forgotten AviatrixesTwo of his previous blog posts on Merlin and The Makers of Fire will appear in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.


Dr. James Barry: The Hero with a Secret

By Jesse Schultz

It seems almost like the makings of a popular television show: A roguish doctor who travels the world, helping the sick and the poor, all the while fighting duels and enraging those in power. He’s an outwardly unpleasant man with a sharp tongue, but one with compassion for his patients and a determination to help those he can.

But this wasn’t the plot to some new medical drama but the actual life of Dr. James Barry. Little is known for certain of his early life, but he began his medical studies in University of Edinburgh Medical School in 1809 and earned his MD in 1812. He continued his studies in London and passed his examination for the Royal College of Surgeons of England. He was commissioned as a Hospital Assistant in the British Army in 1813.

From there Dr. Barry rapidly rose in rank and served in a variety of places in the world; from India to South Africa to Malta to Crimea and to Jamaica. Wherever he went though he fought for better food, sanitation, and medical care for troops and their families, prisoners, and lepers. While in South Africa he performed the first successful Caesarean section, resulting in the infant being named after him. He decried unnecessary suffering and often advocated for the underclass.

He did seem to get into frequent trouble for his work. He made enemies, was demoted, accused of being homosexual, and even arrested during his career. None of that seemed to stop him or deter him from his work.

Dr. Barry retired in 1864 and died of dysentery in 1865. During the examination of his body it was reported that he appeared to have stretch marks indicating that he had given birth some years earlier.

James Barry had been a woman.

It is speculated that Dr. Barry was born as Margaret Ann Bulkley and took the name of her uncle, the Irish artist James Barry, in order to gain access to medical school. The ruse seemed to be a perfect one as no one apparently discovered it until his death. His enemies would occasionally call him “effeminate”, which reportedly led to a few duels as Barry would take offense to that.

But Barry was a woman who excelled all the while maintaining a near-perfect masquerade and in a time period when it was assumed that women could not do such things. Male or female Barry had a career that would make anyone proud. A life devoted to making the world a better place.

One of the dictionary definitions of a hero is: “somebody who is admired and looked up to for outstanding qualities or achievements”. In that case Dr. Barry is doubly so. One for devoting her life for others and the other for finding a way in overcoming the limitations that society had imposed on her.

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The author, Jesse Schultz, has often pretended to be a writer on this blog, but in reality he just dresses like one.

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