Rochester man literally is Obama’s biggest supporter

Published 8:10 pm Saturday, September 26, 2009

On sunny mornings, you often can find Igor Vovkovinskiy sitting with his legs propped up at a quiet fishing hole near the Fisherman’s Inn on Lake Zumbro, just north of Rochester.

Fishing is welcome solitude for the 27-year-old man whose height — 7 feet 8 inches — makes him one of the tallest people on the planet but causes people to gawk and results in unrelenting pain in his legs and feet.

“I only have to walk 10 feet from my car, and it’s perfect,” he said. “I bring my chair and my cooler with Diet Coke, and it’s a beautiful day. I just throw the line out for eight hours, and nothing bites.”

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Vovkovinskiy tends to shrink from public spectacle. There was a time as a teenager when the questions and photo requests were so bothersome that he handed out cards telling the curious he would charge them a dollar if they asked his shoe size. (It’s now 25, by the way.)

So it was a big deal for him to walk on the floor of the Target Center in Minneapolis amid thousands of people on a recent Saturday morning in the hope of greeting President Barack Obama.

Wearing a T-shirt that read, “World’s Biggest Obama Supporter,” the Rochester man knew he would attract attention, but it seemed worth it.

“I was hoping that I could maybe get to shake his hand and say a word or two,” he said. “In my wildest dreams, I thought maybe I’d get to take a picture with the president,” which he could frame along with a picture of himself, his mother and Obama’s wife, Michelle, from a campaign event last year. He got that and more. As the president entered the arena, he shook Vovkovinskiy’s hand, which easily extended over the heads of those in front of him. Then, to Vovkovinskiy’s surprise, Obama acknowledged him in his speech.

“The biggest Obama fan in the country is in the house,” the president said, pausing for applause. “I love this guy.”

“Michelle has a picture where she looks like Sasha next to this guy,” Obama joked. “He’s a great supporter. It’s great to see you again.”

Beyond a chance to see the president, Vovkovinskiy said he wanted to be there to support the call for health care reform.

Vovkovinskiy said he wouldn’t be alive without the initial medical care the Mayo Clinic provided at no charge and the continued medical care funded by the federal Medicare program for the elderly and disabled. He worries about the people with fewer medical needs but no insurance.

“People should at least have the basics,” he said.

Vovkovinskiy was born in the Ukraine but moved to Minnesota with his mother in 1989. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester had agreed to tackle his medical condition, known as pituitary gigantism. At the time, he was 7 years old and 6 feet tall.

A tumor pressing against the pituitary gland in his brain caused out-of-control growth and threatened fatal complications. His mother, Svetlana, had tried in vain to find Russian doctors who would attempt a risky procedure to remove the tumor.

Instead, that was done by doctors at Mayo, who also prescribed the medications he must take for the rest of his life to slow the production of growth hormones. Without the medications, experts have speculated Vovkovinskiy could grow well past 8 feet.

Vovkovinskiy attended high school at Rochester John Marshall, where he tried to play basketball but couldn’t because of the pain. His difficulties were prompted in part by small shoes that caused him to fall. An old pair donated by NBA star Shaquille O’Neal was a neat keepsake, he said, but they didn’t fit.

The only way he could play was for his mother to find the biggest shoes available and cut them open so her son’s toes could poke through. Vovkovinskiy said he regrets he didn’t play more basketball. The activity might have kept off some of the weight that now increases the pressure on his legs. His driver’s license lists him at 500 pounds.

Vovkovinskiy took classes at Rochester Technical and Community College and earned a degree in applied science. He worked a variety of jobs — from being a weekend clerk at Sam’s Club to answering Mayo’s internal technology helpline — but had to quit three years ago.

The abnormal growth of peripheral nerves — along with diabetes — has caused a lack of sensation in his legs, other than the pain. Wounds on his feet have caused major complications and resulted in seven corrective surgeries. He recently traveled to Delaware for an experimental procedure to loosen the nerves in his legs and reduce the pain.

A voracious reader, Vovkovinskiy took an interest in politics in recent years and volunteered at a DFL center in Rochester during last year’s election campaigns. Colleagues there gave him the idea of the Obama fan T-shirt.

Now Vovkovinskiy is studying to take the law school admission test so he can pursue a law degree and enter politics on his own.

“I just kind of have an idea what I think is right or what I think people have a right to have,” he said. “I guess I think maybe, at some point, I could make a difference.”

To see Obama, Vovkovinskiy stood painfully in the crowd at Target Center for more than two hours. Eventually, the heat and the stress on his legs caught up with him, and he had to find a chair during the president’s speech. Just walking into the arena and through the security points had been exhausting — causing beads of sweat to form on his gray Obama shirt.

Still, when the president was finished, Vovkovinskiy was happy. After a little rest and a drink of water, he stood for pictures with dozens of spectators.

“At that point,” he said, “I felt like I could stand for another hour.”

Whether Vovkovinskiy retains the self-imposed title of Obama’s biggest fan will remain to be seen.

Sultan Kosen, of Turkey, was recently named by the Guinness organization as the world’s tallest man at 8-feet 1-inch. Sultan appeared on NBC’s “Today” show, but he didn’t mention his views on Obama.