Relatives remember Leonid Stadnyk as the smallest boy in his class at school. Then he began to shoot up, and 20 years later he has not stopped growing.
Standing 2.54 metres tall in his bare feet, Mr Stadnyk, 33, is believed to be, by a considerable distance, the world's tallest living man. The softly spoken giant, who lives in a remote village in Ukraine, is a clear 17.8 centimetres taller than the man now recognised as the Guinness world record holder. But while the 2.36-metre Radhouane Charbib, from Tunisia, revels in his international celebrity, Mr Stadnyk makes a reluctant record-holder.
"This is my punishment from God," he lamented last week. "What sin I have committed, I do not know. All my life I have dreamed of being just like everyone else. My height is my curse."
He lives in abject poverty with his mother and sister in the village of Podoliantsi, 182 kilometres west of Kiev. He is, quite simply, a staggering sight. His head grazes the branches of tall trees; his mother barely comes up to his waist.
Mr Stadnyk suffers from acromegalic gigantism, a condition caused by a tumour on his pituitary gland that makes it produce too much growth hormone. In the past two years he has grown 30 centimetres,and a suit bought in 2002 is already far too small. If his condition is not treated he is likely to become the tallest man in recorded history, beating Robert Pershing Wadlow, from Illinois, who was 2.71 metres by the time he died in 1940 at the age of 22.
But it is not a milestone that Mr Stadnyk craves. Although his height has been verified by Ukrainian officials, and the Guinness Book of Records
is seeking independent confirmation, he would rather be left alone. Already self-conscious about his appearance, he rarely leaves his home village for fear of being ridiculed.
He has never had a girlfriend and will not get married because of his illness.
"I don't really have any friends," he says with a sigh. He relies on his mother Galina, 62.
"If anything happens to my mother, I don't even know how to buy food. I haven't been to the market for five years."
When he was 12 doctors removed part of the tumour, but a piece remained lodged in his brain.
Doctors in Britain say that his condition will deteriorate rapidly unless he has urgent surgery, but he cannot afford the cost of transport and medical care.
"I haven't been for a medical check-up since I was a child," he said.
Even so, he has to labour in the fields on his family's scrap of land because he cannot survive on his monthly disability allowance of 165 hryvnia ($43).
"I fall down, I swear, I get up again," he said. "It's very hard for me, but I have no choice."