Aussie sporting legend's unbreakable bond with Ukrainian soldier

·5-min read
Alex Gorgan, pictured here in Ukraine.
Alex Gorgan has a special bond with Aussie kayak legend Dean Gardiner. Image: Supplied

Dean Gardiner has paddled against some of the world's toughest men on the international kayak circuit.

But the nine-time world surf ski champion has never encountered anyone tougher, braver or as single-minded as Alex Gorgan.

Gorgan had never sat in a kayak until before he bought an old second-hand ski and began training in a half-frozen river near his home in Ukraine, almost killing himself with hypothermia after constant dunkings.

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Not one to give up easily, he talked the local pool owner into letting him in late at night so he could continue practising in heated water.

Keen to fast-track his education, Alex scoured the internet and came across Gardiner's kayak camps in faraway Australia.

These camps are normally the domain of experienced paddlers, with Gardiner taking the group on a gruelling eight-day, 1000km journey from Fremantle to Exmouth.

The Ukrainian, insistent about taking on the challenge despite his lack of experience, hopped on a plane and headed to Sydney where he was immediately given a crash course in paddling at a gentle harbourside beach.

"I got him a ski from my paddling group and he jumped in and fell off immediately, so I told him to just paddle as best he can along the shore," Gardiner explained.

"I swung past midway through our session and he was doing OK, on and off.

"We finished and he wanted to stay so I said I would pick him up after a coffee at about 8am.

"He said 'no don't come back until 2pm'. He had no food, just his paddling clothes… that was it.

"I came back to pick him up at 2pm and he was paddling ok along the shoreline backwards and forward.

"I asked how he went and he said he paddled the whole time except for about half an hour when he lay under a tree and rested.

"His determination was just incredible. Nothing was going to stop him. He wanted to do what we were doing in the open ocean."

A woman, pictured here speaking with a child as they shelter in a subway station on the northern outskirts of Kharkiv.
A woman speaks with a child as they shelter in a subway station on the northern outskirts of Kharkiv. (Photo by SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images)

And eventually he did. By the end of the WA trip, Gorgan was padding in the open ocean with some of the world's best kayakers.

That tenacity and never-give-in attitude is still evident today as Gorgan bunkers down for the fight of his life.

He's one of millions of civilian Ukrainians taking up arms against the Russian invasion of their country, swapping a laptop for a rifle.

"For me, as a complete civilian, being a soldier is quite unusual," he says.

"You just get used to the fact that everything is constantly changing. It doesn't matter whether it's day or night - you do the things when you have to do to survive.

"The shelling could be this afternoon and tomorrow night... the intensity of action also changes and there's constant changes in location.

"Although the war has lasted two months, it feels more like a year."

Ukrainian soldiers, pictured here standing on a road near Lyman in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian soldiers stand on a road near Lyman in eastern Ukraine. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP) (Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images)

Dean Gardiner's special bond with Alex Gorgan

Asked to describe what he is seeing and feeling, he replies: "There are so many events and emotions. But the hardest thing to accept is that people are dying.

"Every day our soldiers die - and this is mostly guys from other professions: IT specialists, marketers, managers. young, talented, bright people. This is very difficult to accept."

He tells a horrific story of Russians ransacking a nearby village and seeing the bodies of dead children being carried out of the ruined remains.

I ask how he is holding up. He says: "I am fine… when I say that I'm fine, I just mean that I'm alive and well.

"But I'm definitely not fine when I think what horror is going on around here. I think you know what I mean.

"The war is terrible….people are being deliberately deprived of their lives."

Communications are then lost for a couple of weeks and Gardiner grows increasingly concerned.

Firefighters, pictured here tring to extinguish fire in a warehouse in Kharkiv.
Firefighters try to extinguish fire in a warehouse in Kharkiv. (Photo by Narciso Contreras/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Both he and I try Alex again via Facebook messenger and thankfully he responds. Incredibly, he apologises for not getting back to us quicker.

"Sorry once again. The connection is quite difficult - the signal is blocked. The transmission is obstructed by the Russians or sometimes by ours," he posts.

"I'm fine but in our square there is some very intense shelling and unfortunately quite a few have died."

Two weeks later, he reports back in.

"We have made heavy losses on the Russians and they were forced to run to the northern regions of the country," he writes.

"Now they've relocated the remnants of their military units to the east of the country, where a large offensive was being prepared for our positions (near Kharkiv).

"I had just returned from the east - I was performing a combat mission to escort military cargo. It's very hot (dangerous) there, constant bombing and numerous air strikes.

"Now I have a short break and go east again."

And just like that, he is gone again for who knows how long. Into an unknown future neither he nor his countrymen asked for.

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