Igor Vovkovinskiy smiles as he shows off his custom Reeboks to a reporter. (AP)
Back in April, Alex Conover of the Minnesota Timberwolves' official website wrote about a trip to the Target Center taken by a unique visitor: Igor Vovkovinskiy of Rochester, Minn. who at 7 feet, 8 inches tall is the tallest person in the United States. Due to his great size, it had been years since Vovkovinskiy — who was born in the Ukraine but whose family came to Minnesota in 1989 so that he could undergo treatment at the Mayo Clinic for the pituitary gigantism that was accelerating his growth, has lived in the area since and became a Wolves fan as he grew up — had been able to fit in a regular spectator seat at the arena, so the team's front office organized accommodations for Vovkovinskiy in a special suite for a home game against the Golden State Warriors.
It was a neat human interest story about a team going the extra mile for a fan, made notable by the unique stature of that particular supporter ... which, as you might expect, has made stuff like finding shoes that fit a lifelong struggle:
"I tried basketball," said Vovkovinskiy, "But after 5th or 6th grade, nobody could make shoes for me. I had to stop playing."
Vovkovinskiy has undergone 16 foot surgeries, resulting in a total of three years of bedrest. His current shoes, although functional, are terribly inadequate for his needs.
"This is basically it," said Vovkovinskiy, pointing to his worn-down, black leather shoes. "They have no support, no grip. On the ice, these things are basically suicide. They're flat, and they don't have any curve. It's incredibly hard to walk on them."
On Thursday, Vovkovinskiy received what could be a life-changing gift: several pairs of custom-made sneakers, molded specifically for his size 24 10E feet, that will enable him to walk in the world comfortably for the first time in years. The shoes — which feature the Tryzub Cross, a Ukrainian symbol, and say "IGOR" on the back and soles — reportedly cost $25,000, were designed, produced and delivered to Vovkovinskiy by Reebok, which covered the whole bill.
"Wow!" he said [as he tried on the shoes.] "It feels so good, like I'm walking on pillows or mattresses." [...]
"I'm going to be able to go to the store for groceries or the hardware store if I need to fix something at my mom's house," he said.
Reebok took imprints of Vovkovinskiy's feet to mold the shoes exactly. (AP)Thursday's delivery came at the end of a process that began more than five months ago, around the time of Vovkovinskiy's Target Center visit. He'd been looking for solutions to his footwear problems for years, since his condition began affecting the size of his feet to the point where he required surgeries, the recovery from which necessitated bed rest, which he told Rodrique Ngowi of The Associated Press has left him largely homebound for years:
"Living the last six years has been a nightmare basically," he said.
Shoes that fit will get him outside and make a huge difference, he said.
"Basically, I'm a prisoner of my own house, even though I am medically cleared to walk," Vovkovinskiy said. "Where am I going to go with shoes that are painful?"
Over the years, multiple doctors told Vovkovinskiy "it'd be a lot cheaper to make shoes that'd fit his body than to keep having surgeries," but despite the physicians' input, insurance companies repeatedly denied his requests for financial help in covering the cost of custom-made shoes — $16,000, to be exact.
Reebok employees measure Vovkovinskiy's feet. (AP)Seeking a solution, Vovkovinskiy started a Facebook fundraising campaign to try to get enough cash together for the shoes; after word of his plight spread via social media, news reports and television coverage, donations flooded in, giving him double the necessary amount and even resulting in footwear maker Reebok offering to offer to set him up for free. They flew him from Minnesota to their Canton, Mass., offices in May, scanned his unique feet and created custom molds for the sneakers, then covered the cost of producing the one-of-a-kind items.
"For so long it hurt to have shoes on," Vovkovinskiy told Dougherty of the Post-Bulletin. "Every day I was in pain. I want to be active again and walk. I can barely walk two blocks now. Before, I could walk two miles."
Now that he'll be able to get out of the house more easily and travel comfortably, maybe he'll be able to show off his prized possession from the Reebok haul:
Maybe his favorite pair will be the Minnesota Timberwolves color pair. Vovkovinskiy said he might save those to wear to a T-Wolves game.
That might not be a bad idea. I hear Minnesota's looking for another big man these days.
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