ROCHESTER - Igor Vovkovinskiy, the tallest man in America, just wanted a pair of shoes that didn't cause him crippling pain.
The modern-day giant was astounded that the cost of making shoes for a man with no existing shoe size was about $16,000. So he posted a plea on Facebook last month.
"I am 7' 8.33" tall, and I haven't had a proper-fitting pair of shoes for more than 6 years," he wrote. "No matter what company I write to, or how many friends of mine ask companies to help me ... nobody wants to help if there is no benefit for them."
Could readers please help?
Thousands did, donating more than $38,000 to date in the latest example of the power of nontraditional fundraisers. About a half-dozen shoe manufacturers also have stepped forward, including a Minnesota company that announced Thursday that it would make the mega shoes.
So far, there is no shoe deal, Vovkovinskiy said. But now that he's gotten everybody's attention, he expects to announce which company will take up his challenge in a few weeks. Meanwhile, he's grappling with how to handle the unexpected windfall, as well as the thousands of well-wishers who flood his Facebook and his gofundme.com pages.
"I just want to be able to walk out of the house without worrying about pain," said Vovkovinskiy, who says it now feels like his feet are "getting stuck with ice picks."
"I'd like to do simple things, like maybe go window shopping at a mall. I haven't done that in about four years. Maybe walk my dog, go fishing."
Hoped for a cure
The tallest man in America was born in Ukraine 29 years ago. His mother, Svetlana, brought him to Rochester in 1989, when he was 6 years old and nearly 6 feet tall. She hoped doctors could remove the tumor on his pituitary gland that was responsible for his towering growth. But the tumor was imbedded too deeply for complete removal.
Sipping coffee at a restaurant this week, where even seated he was taller than most standing customers, Vovkovinskiy said the lack of decent shoes closed the doors on a normal life early on.
He said he spent a lot of time at the YMCA when he was young, playing basketball and other sports. But by middle school, finding shoes to run and jump in was a problem. His world began to shrink.
His size 26 feet have endured 16 surgeries. The big man with the boyish face has managed to work and attend college, where he is studying to be a paralegal. But his life is mainly at home.
"After every surgery, I'd start to get better and try to get back to my life again," he said. "But then the wound opened up again. It was a cycle.
"For the past three years, this is all I've had to wear," he added, lifting his pant leg to show a huge black shoe with Velcro straps. "There is no support for my feet. No traction on the bottom. I'm afraid to walk outside in the winter. I need to hold onto the side of the house to make sure I don't slip and fall."
After being bedridden on and off for years, Vovkovinskiy and his friends decided to take drastic measures. They got on the computer, contacting everyone they thought could help. That included President Obama and his wife, Michelle, who acknowledged the "world's biggest Obama supporter" at a 2009 rally.
"We have written to Oprah, Dr. Phil, CNN, ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, Ac360, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Reebok, Adidas, Nike, Converse ...," Vovkovinskiy posted on Facebook. "Nobody has ever responded with any offer to help. So now I turn to the public as a whole."
Donations poured in, as well as countless kind words. On March 21, he wrote: "My shoe fund is almost at $3,000. I can't stop crying for over an hour."
His plea even made its way to Kiev, the Ukrainian city where Vovkovinskiy grew up. Relatives told him the story was broadcast in the context of: "Here's America's tallest person and they can't even afford to give him a pair of shoes."
A small world
In spite of the new attention, Vovkovinskiy leads a modest life. He lives with his mother in a specially remodeled house with cathedral ceilings. He attends classes, does homework. Outings are limited.
He recently began working with a manager to sort through offers from shoemakers. Last month, a national publication quoted a Reebok executive saying Reebok would make the shoes. On Thursday, a Minnesota company, Palidium Inc., announced the same.
Vovkovinskiy said he may have talked to someone from Palidium at the Timberwolves game he attended last week, but no commitment was made. Any company chosen, he said, must have laser technology that can create exact images of his unusual feet.
The Timberwolves game, in fact, underscores his need for footwear. Vovkovinskiy, who had been invited by the team to attend the game, was thrilled. But when he left the Target Center, he was mobbed. His heart raced; pain flared.
"I was bent over by a wall I was in so much pain, and I had a thousand people taking pictures of me," he recalled. "I told them, 'Please just wait. Give me a few minutes to rest.'"
Vovkovinskiy apologizes to "anyone who thought I was mean." He hopes this chapter of his life will soon be over.
"When we started this, I thought it would take a year to raise $16,000," he said. "I cannot believe how generous people have been."
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511
BIG FEET, BIG SHOES
Igor Vovkovinskiy's shoe size
Average American male shoe size, according to the National Shoe Retailers Association