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U.S. luger, father battle different foes

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There may come a point in February when Uncle Sam's best female luger has to decide whether she competes in the 2002 Winter Games or sits by her father's side as he receives a liver transplant.

Becky Wilczak of River Forest, Ill., and her father, Tom, hope the 21-year-old slider doesn't have to make that decision. But as Tom waits on the liver donor list, the possibility looms.

"Right now I can't tell you how I would deal with that situation," Becky Wilczak said during a telephone conference this week with reporters. "My gut feeling would be that I would want to be with my family."

For over 14 years Tom Wilczak has battled auto-immune Hepatitis, which causes immune cells to attack the liver and produces a type of cirrhosis, according to the Tom's Chicago doctor Alfred Baker.

In recent months, his disease has taken a turn for the worse. His body hasn't responded to a variety of medicines and now, barring a miracle, transplantation is the only option, Baker said.

As her father's liver has deteriorated, Becky Wilczak has become USA Luge's best female slider and is currently ranked fourth in the World Cup standings. She also finished fourth in last year's World Cup race held at Utah Olympic Park, home to 2002 Olympic luging.

Tom Wilczak saw that World Cup race last year, but this year it has been a different story.

"This is the fist year in which I've actually missed Becky's races," he said. "I had reservations for Calgary, for Lake Placid, but we had to cancel out because I was physically unable to attend."

The disease causes Tom Wilczak to become fatigued and he has to have fluid drained almost weekly to relieve pressure around his liver, Baker said.

Whether Tom Wilczak will attend the Olympics is undecided, but he is holding out hope that he can watch his daughter compete, Feb. 12-13.

"I have reservations, airline tickets, I've rented a house, the family is going, the grandkids will be there, we're hoping," Tom Wilczak said.

He added:

"Becky going to the Olympics is a dream that she's had for many years. Everything that we can do to support her accomplishing that dream is where our emphasis will go. We're hoping that my medical condition doesn't detract from her dream. Unfortunately, I've had the condition for 14 years and it just happened to peak at this time."

For a while now, the family hoped Tom Wilczak would have a new liver before the Olympics, but those hopes are looking slimmer with opening ceremonies just a month away.

According to Baker, Tom Wilczak is at the highest priority for transplantation that he can be. Still, even doctors aren't told where their patients sit on the transplant list and Wilczak could be next or 50 people behind.

Despite the uncertainty, Becky Wilczak continues to improve on the World Cup circuit and remains a hopeful for a U.S. medal.

"I'm sliding as well as I can right now," she said. "This has helped me realize that there's more out there, not just luge."

E-mail: bsnyder@desnews.com