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It's a big world

Sunday, July 11, 2004

PODOLIANTSI, Ukraine -- His extraordinary height trapped Leonid Stadnik in a tiny Ukrainian village for years, but now the 8-foot-4 man is seeing his horizons expand to match his size.

Until this spring, the 33-year-old Stadnik had spent almost all his days here in Podoliantsi, a poor village in northwestern Ukraine.

As he grew, his life seemed to be shrinking. He had to stop working as a veterinarian on a cattle farm three years ago after his feet were frostbitten because he couldn't afford proper shoes. Living on a $30 monthly pension, he tried to fill his days by gardening and helping out at his mother's cramped house.

Then journalists, including The Associated Press, found out about him and one of the stories caught the notice of a German who claimed to be a distant relative and invited him for a visit. The German, who asked to be identified only as Volodymyr, came to pick up Stadnik in a van suitable for his sprawling frame.

The trip to Volodymyr's home near Baden Baden in southwestern Germany took a grueling 25 hours and, once there, Stadnik had to sleep on a billiard table. But, Stadnik says, it was worth every discomfort.

He got to sample frog legs in an elegant restaurant. He saw a roller coaster in an amusement park. "I saw so much in that month, as never before in my life," he says.

That included seeing himself in the swirl of attention, with German teenagers asking him for autographs and doctors seeking to examine him.

Stadnik, whose growth spurt started at age 14 after a brain operation apparently stimulated his pituitary gland, is still growing. There's no indication yet whether he might top the 8-foot-11 reached by Robert Wadlow of Alton, Ill., the tallest man known in history who died in 1940.

Record book unchanged

Recent measurements show Stadnik is already 7 inches taller than Radhouane Charbib of Tunisia, listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the tallest living man.

Guinness isn't planning any change, at least for now.

"At the moment we still have the Tunisian guy as the record holder," Guinness spokeswoman Kate White said. "We have contacted Stadnik, but he seems like a very shy guy. He doesn't want us around. So we have to stick to what we have."

All the attention has perplexed Stadnik. During his visit to Germany, he recalls, his host once reprimanded pestering teens: "Leave him in peace. He is not a bamboo; he doesn't grow four centimeters a day."

There were some disappointments on the trip. At a shoe shop for big men, they couldn't find a pair that would hold Stadnik's 17-inch feet. "It's nice, but I don't like the color," he joked about one short pair.

Finally becoming homesick, he decided to come back to help his mother, Halyna, with the summer routine of country life.

"It's wrong to be idle while my loved ones are working so hard," Stadnik says, even though he suffers from constant knee pain from carrying around his 440-pound bulk.

His mother says her son returned a new man.

"I don't remember him so inspired," she says. "Before, he was concentrated on himself and his problems, while now he looks as if he got a second wind."

When Stadnik got back he found a new bed, made by furniture workers in the area. Before, he slept on two beds joined lengthwise.

He also found that his blue and yellow parakeet Kesha had learned to imitate the telephone ring, from the frequent calls that have accompanied Stadnik's newfound celebrity.

But what moved him the most was a new pair of athletic shoes that actually fit. They were sent by Jason Neswick, a New Yorker who had read of Stadnik's plight.

"It is said that we live in such an age with advanced technology, medicine and breakthroughs, yet fall short of helping someone with no apparent reason for suffering," Neswick wrote.


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