U.S.-South Korea sister act shapes up for PyeongChang Olympics
Hannah Brandt is trying out for the U.S. women’s hockey team this week. She is favored to make it and then debut at the Olympics in PyeongChang.
Her older sister, Marissa Brandt, is also confident she’ll skate in PyeongChang, though she is not trying out for the U.S. team.
Marissa plays for South Korea’s national team.
A U.S. Olympian’s sibling competing for another country at the same Winter Games? It has never happened. It likely will next February.
There is the unique story of the Krueger brothers, John-Henry (U.S.) and Cole (Hungary), short track speed skaters. The Brandt sisters are also an exceptional case.
On May 6, 1993, a 4-month-old South Korean girl flew from Seoul to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, chaperoned of course.
At the gate, Greg and Robin Brandt cradled their daughter Marissa for the first time. (Those were the days you could get to an airport gate without a ticket, Greg joked.)
The Brandts had trouble conceiving early in their marriage, so they decided to adopt. They chose a South Korean program because other family members had previously done the same.
The Brandts brought to the airport balloons, all kinds of relatives and even video and still cameras that day. Greg still remembers Robin passing Marissa to him.
“You know how you’re supposed to support the back of an infant’s neck? I didn’t do that very well,” Greg said with a laugh. “Of course, this is all on video. I took a hold of her, and her head made a little bit of a swoon.”
The South Korean adoption process took two years. In that time, the Brandts did conceive. Robin was three months pregnant when she first held 4-month-old Marissa at the gate.
“We thought, what a great blessing to potentially have two children to fulfill our family,” Greg said. “We wanted to have more than one child anyway, and we knew we may never be able to get pregnant again.”
Marissa’s younger sister, Hannah, was born on Nov. 27, 1993.
Marissa and Hannah did everything together growing up outside the Twin Cities, though they obviously did not look like sisters.
Dance classes, soccer, even a South Korean culture camp (which Hannah enjoyed and Marissa disliked. “I just wanted to not really dig into the Korean heritage, stuff like that,” Marissa said. “I just wanted to be like everyone else.”).
They were most comfortable on the ice.
Both girls took skating lessons by age 5, but this is where they diverged. Marissa showed promise as a graceful figure skater. Hannah, unlike the other girls, wore black hockey skates in class and was jokingly described as “Herman Munster on skates” by her dad.
A tipping point came when Hannah told her father that she wanted to start playing football with the neighborhood boys. They settled on hockey. Marissa switched from figure skating to hockey about two years later, and the two played together through high school.
Hannah compiled one of the greatest prep and college careers in Minnesota history.
She earned a spot on the U.S. women’s national team for the 2012 World Championship at age 18, before her freshman season at the University of Minnesota. She remains the youngest American woman to skate at an Olympics or worlds in the last decade.
Marissa was not as highly recruited out of high school. She played at Gustavus Adolphus College, a Division III school an hour south of Minneapolis.
PyeongChang was awarded the 2018 Winter Olympics in July 2011, shortly after Marissa graduated high school. At the time, Marissa tried to email South Korea’s hockey federation to express interest in trying out for their Olympic team years down the road. (South Korea has never qualified a men’s or women’s hockey team for the Olympics, but receives spots in 2018 as the host nation.)
She received no answer.
Come spring 2015, Marissa believed she had played her final competitive hockey game with the end of her senior season at Adolphus.
She was studying for final exams when she received a call from Rebecca Baker, then a coach with another Minnesota D-III school who also worked with South Korea’s national team.
Baker’s husband was a goalie coach at the University of Minnesota. Somehow, word had trickled to Minnesota head coach Brad Frost that South Korea was looking for players ahead of the Olympics in three years. Frost spoke with Hannah, and Baker eventually received Marissa’s phone number.
Marissa was asked if she wanted to fly to South Korea in a month to try out for the national team.
“It was kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Marissa said. “I thought I was done. So to get that call and to be able to play again was kind of surprising, but also I was happy about it, because I still wanted to play.”
Marissa had not been back to South Korea since she boarded that flight 12 years earlier.
“I was really scared to go over,” she said. “I know nobody there, and I don’t speak the language. It was really intimidating. I just didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into or if any of this was even real because all I had heard was from [the team] was just an email. This guy’s picking you up from the airport. He’ll bring you to the hotel. There was this shred of doubt, like, is this even a real thing? Is this really happening?”
It was. Marissa spent the summer in South Korea, tried out, and coaches apparently liked what they saw.
She joined three other players that the team refers to as “imports” from North America. The other three all had at least one Korean parent, but they were born in the U.S. or Canada.
It took more than one year for Marissa to become a dual citizen. She estimated the other imports’ processes were about half as long, but she still considered hers the easier route.
“They had to do everything in Korean [language] and learn the national anthem,” said Marissa, who mostly had to bring paperwork, such as her birth certificate, to offices. “I’m really bad at Korean.”
Marissa made her national-team debut last month at a lower-level world championship tournament at a 2018 Olympic venue in Gangneung, South Korea. At the same time, Hannah played in the top-level world championship tournament in Plymouth, Mich.
The sisters watched each other’s games via early morning internet streams. The U.S. and South Korea, two teams coached by Minnesotans, won gold medals hours apart.
In two years of back-and-forth Detroit-to-Seoul trips, Marissa gained an appreciation for a culture she once shied away from as a child. Marissa spent the entire winter in South Korea and will return again in July. She says that her new teammates teach her the Korean language, while she reciprocates with English tips where she can.
At worlds, Marissa decided to use her Korean birth name, Park Yoon-Jung, to wear on the back of her national-team jersey. (The North American-born imports kept their English names.)
“At first, I was kind of hesitant, like I kind of wanted Brandt to be on my jersey because that’s all I’ve known growing up,” she said. “But now I guess, looking back, I’m very proud to wear my Korean name because that’s my only tie to Korea. That’s the name my birth mother gave me.”
Marissa stood with her new teammates after winning gold and listened to a national anthem that she could not recite.
“I could have cried at that point,” she said. “It’s being there, standing in your home country, wearing Korea on the front of your jersey, looking up at your flag. It’s a very proud moment.”
Marissa has been asked if she hopes to find her birth parents in South Korea.
“In the back of my head, I just don’t get my hopes up because I know we don’t have much information on her,” she said of her mother. “It would be a one-in-a-million chance that we actually find her.”
Marissa, a defenseman, said she and the other imports are cautiously optimistic that they’ll make the Olympic team, but she doesn’t know when that will be decided.
“She just sees the ice very well,” Hannah said. “She’s a great skater. She’s just very calm and composed. She doesn’t ever get too nervous. She’s graceful on the ice, and I’m kind of the opposite of that.”
Hannah already went through an Olympic team selection process in 2014.
She remembers sitting in a Lake Placid room as head coach Katey Stone read the alphabetical list of national-team players in front of everyone -- those who made it and those who were cut. The Bs came and went without a mention of Brandt.
“So I knew pretty much right away that I wasn’t going to be on the team,” Hannah said. “If you don’t make it, you leave right away. They get you off to the airport.”
Hannah is excited for what this Olympic season could bring under new coach Robb Stauber. She wasn’t able to try out for the 2016 Worlds team due to upper-body injuries. The forward joined the third line this season with Alex Carpenter, who scored the 2016 Worlds gold-medal-winning goal, and longtime team captain Meghan Duggan.
Hannah is currently in Tampa trying out with 41 other players. USA Hockey is expected to announce the national team Friday. It’s expected to be made up of 23 players, the same number as the Olympic roster that will be named closer to the Winter Games.
The U.S. and South Korea are in separate groups for the Olympic tournament. South Korea is unlikely to advance to the medal round, so the Brandt sisters likely won’t play each other in PyeongChang. That won’t make it any less unique.
Siblings have competed for different nations at every Summer and Winter Olympics since 2008, according to Olympstats.com. But never has the Olympic sibling set included one athlete from the host nation.
“The potential is pretty incredible,” Greg said. “I told Marissa, the greatest thing will be walking in that stadium as a member of the home country. I said, Hannah will never have that. That will make it really worth it for me, right there.”
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