PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – The first time she made her intentions known, Hannah Brandt was 7 years old. She was watching the movie “Miracle,” about the 1980 U.S. hockey team’s stunning run to Olympic gold, with parents Greg and Robin Brandt at their home in Vadnais Heights.
“She said, ‘Mom, how are they going to find me?’ ” Robin Brandt recalled last week, while she sat in the stands at Kwandong Hockey Centre in the South Korean city of Gangneung. “I asked her, ‘Who needs to find you?’ And she said, ‘They need to find me, so I can play in the Olympics.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Hannah, you can barely stand up on your skates.’ ”
As Robin Brandt told that story, Hannah burst onto the ice in her USA jersey to warm up for her second game of the Pyeongchang Olympics. Her parents — and the mothers and fathers of many other Minnesota-linked Olympians — made the 6,400-mile journey to South Korea to share in an experience that is as rewarding for them as it is for their children.
The Brandts are pulling double duty in Pyeongchang. Hannah’s U.S. team has reached the semifinals, and their other daughter, Marissa, plays for the Korean women’s hockey team. Getting them to the world’s grandest sporting stage required years of traveling to tournaments, paying for camps and expensive equipment and providing a constant flow of love, encouragement and support.
It’s a scenario familiar to other Minnesota parents, such as Clay and Deb Diggins of Afton, who have been waving American flags while their daughter, Jessie, competes in cross-country skiing. Carl and Sue Nordgren of Marine on St. Croix have become regulars at the biathlon stadium to support their son, Leif. Tom and Jackie Shuster of Chisholm are spending their days at Gangneung Curling Centre to see their son John, the U.S. men’s curling skip, while Tom and Christine George are watching their son Tyler — a member of Shuster’s team — from their home in Duluth.
The Brandts have attended games every day, dressed in their Team USA jerseys, scarves and hats or their Team Korea gear. Before the U.S. game against the Olympic Athletes from Russia, Greg Brandt leaned against a wall and took in a scene that still brought tears to his eyes, four days after the Opening Ceremony.
“The day I saw Hannah step onto the ice for the Gophers at Ridder Arena, I thought, ‘It’s never going to get better than this,’ ” Brandt said. “But nothing is like the Olympics.
“You look down and see the Olympic rings on the ice, and your kid is out there skating, and it’s … I don’t know. I don’t even know what to say, other than it’s incredible.”
Where it begins
Many of Minnesota’s Winter Olympians began their journeys to Pyeongchang skiing, skating or curling alongside their parents. Diggins rode in her dad’s backpack as a toddler, shouting, “Mush! Mush!” and imploring him to ski faster along the family’s favorite trails. Nordgren’s father keeps a photo on his phone of Leif as a 4-year-old, dressed as a biathlete with a BB gun strapped to his back.
Raising an Olympian requires years of investment, in terms of money, time, energy and emotion. Carl Nordgren and Clay Diggins both said they considered it more of a lifestyle than a sacrifice, because their children were introduced to their Olympic sports as a family activity.
Leif Nordgren could ski at age 3 and had aspirations of being in the Olympics before kindergarten. His parents didn’t discourage that dream. In fact, the family often hung motivational signs around the house, including one that read, “Pain is your friend, and more pain is your best friend.”
“When you climb a mountain, you see what’s on the other side,” Carl Nordgren said. “So I taught my kids to climb mountains and see things.”
Seeing their children compete in the Olympics is its own adventure. The Brandts are staying in a condo near the hockey arena and get together with other parents of American players before the games. With two daughters playing, they haven’t had time to see any other events, and most of their meals have come from arena concession stands.
They also have been inundated with interview requests from international media charmed by their story. Marissa Brandt, born in South Korea, was adopted as an infant and did not return to the country of her birth until she was invited to play for its national women’s hockey team. Greg and Robin Brandt have seen their shy daughter become a celebrity in Pyeongchang, recognized everywhere she goes and surrounded by autograph seekers.
“Hannah was always the more famous one, but now, she’s being asked if she’s the sister of Marissa Brandt,” Robin said. “To see your daughter have that kind of experience, it’s indescribable.”
Parents of Olympians don’t get to see much of their children during the Games. At best, they get to share a few minutes after competitions, before the athletes go back to the Olympic Village. They do meet the families of other Olympians, though, becoming part of an exclusive club just as the athletes do.
“We’ve met the parents of [skier] Julia Mancuso and [hockey player] Jamie Langenbrunner,” Tom Shuster said. “We’re all just regular people whose kids are famous.”
Sometimes, magical moments materialize in unexpected ways. When John Shuster won an Olympic bronze medal in 2006, the Shusters were escorted to the front of the stage at the medal plaza in Turin, Italy, and marveled at a sky full of fireworks that Tom Shuster said “felt like they were just for us.” At the Opening Ceremony in Pyeongchang, John Shuster sneaked out of the athletes’ seats and found his family on the concourse for a few quick photos.
Being an Olympic parent can be stressful, too. Carl Nordgren said it is “agonizing to watch” when Leif is not having a good day on the shooting range, and Tom Shuster called it “nerve-racking” to sit in the stands as John throws the last rocks in a tense game.
Tom and Christine George are experiencing all those emotions from long distance. They were not able to make it to Korea and are watching Tyler’s curling matches on TV, with their friends at the Duluth Curling Club. Some of the members have known Tyler since he was an infant, when his parents — who managed the club’s food concessions — laid him down for naps in a big roasting pan on the kitchen counter while they worked.
Watching on TV is actually easier for Christine, who gets so anxious during games that she can’t bear to look. Tom, a state champion curler who coached Tyler in several sports, finds himself scrutinizing every shot.
“I have to say, I’m not watching it like a regular parent,” he said. “I’m watching it with a critical eye. My wife is far more emotional.”
Yet Tom George is hardly dispassionate. When Team Shuster won the Olympic trials in November, he rushed onto the ice and enveloped Tyler in a tearful bear hug, overcome by the realization that his son had finally become an Olympian at age 35 after eight years of trying.
That boundless love, support and encouragement, Tyler George said, is perhaps the greatest gift that Olympians receive from their parents — and there is no better way to pay it back than making it to the Games.
“We all bawled like babies, and my father doesn’t do that very often,” George said. “Getting to hug my dad after that game, that’s something I’ll never forget. Sharing it with them is the best part of the whole thing.”