When the Brandt sisters were 5 or 6 years old, their parents sent them to a Korean culture camp. Hannah — the younger, American-born sibling — loved it so much that she wanted to go back every year. Korean-born Marissa, who came to Minnesota as an infant, felt less enthusiastic.
“It’s the only time I was ever exposed to anything Korean, and I didn’t really want to be exposed to it,” Marissa said. “I just wanted to be like Hannah, and like everyone else.”
The best place to do that, she learned, was on a hockey rink. Much to her surprise, that most Minnesotan of games became a portal to her past — and a springboard to the Olympics for the sisters from Vadnais Heights. Marissa, 24, is a defenseman for the South Korean team that will represent the host country at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang. Hannah, 23, was named to the U.S. national team last month and is on track to make her Olympic debut.
Marissa has spent the past two years shuttling back and forth from South Korea, returning for the first time since Greg and Robin Brandt adopted her when she was 4 ½ months old. Her national-team jersey and her new passport both bear her birth name, Yoon Jung Park.
That isn’t the only thing now separating the tightly bound siblings, who played together nearly constantly from youth hockey through their days at Hill-Murray. Hannah, the Gophers’ career leading scorer, will head to Pyeongchang with an American team favored to win gold. Marissa, who played at Division III powerhouse Gustavus Adolphus, is part of a fledgling program in a country where fewer than 300 women play the game.
After showing little interest in her roots as a child, Marissa is soaking up Korean culture during her long stays in the country. Part of the fun of the Olympics, she said, will be sharing that with Hannah, via the sport that solidified their sisterly bond.
“Playing hockey together all those years made us closer and closer,” said Hannah, who won three NCAA titles during a Gophers career that ended in 2016. “It’s like you always have your best friend with you.
“It’s crazy that it happened this way, that we’re both going to the Olympics for the first time. It’s going to be so cool.”
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Like many hockey tales, Marissa Brandt’s path to the South Korean Olympic team followed a web of Minnesota connections. The team is coached by Sarah Murray, who played at Minnesota Duluth and Shattuck-St. Mary’s and is the daughter of former NHL coach Andy Murray. Its goalie coach, Rebecca Baker, played at Wisconsin and Shattuck.
Baker cold-called Brandt in 2015 during her senior season at Gustavus, asking if she would be interested in trying out for the South Korean national team. A few weeks later, the team manager sent her a plane ticket.
“He said, ‘See you in a week,’ ” Brandt recalled. “I was terrified. I don’t speak the language. I don’t know anybody there. Nothing was familiar to me.”
The allure of the Olympics pushed that fear aside. Though she said her first trip was “a little overwhelming,” the team’s four other “imports” — all of whom were born in North America to Korean parents — helped Brandt navigate menus, social norms and the language gap.
Marissa Brandt now relishes her time in Korea, despite the long separations for two sisters who joined the Brandt household only six months apart. Greg and Robin Brandt adopted Marissa in 1993 following many fruitless years of trying to conceive. While they were preparing for her arrival, they found out Robin was pregnant.
Marissa came home on May 6, and Hannah was born Nov. 27. Once they were old enough to get on the ice, both started out as figure skaters until Hannah shifted to hockey at age 5. Marissa joined her three years later, giving up a sport she loved in order to be with a sister she loved more.
“I think she only played hockey to hang out with me,” Hannah said, a comment that drew a nod and a laugh from Marissa. “We spent so much time together at tournaments, on road trips, in summer hockey. That just made us closer.”
Hannah seemed destined to make the Olympic team in 2014, during her sophomore year at the U. She was crushed when she was left off the roster for the Sochi Games, but she remained a staple on other national teams as she shined for the Gophers. A three-time All-America selection, she finished her career with a school-record 286 points and 170 assists.
Once Marissa earned her spot on the South Korean national team, Hannah felt even greater urgency to make the Americans’ 23-player roster for the Pyeongchang Games. The first sign that it could be a charmed year came in April, when Marissa helped South Korea win a world championship only hours after Hannah did the same with the U.S.
Hannah watched all of Marissa’s games via the internet — including the final at 3 a.m. — while playing in the main tournament in Michigan. Marissa kept up with Hannah’s games through texts. Four hours after the U.S. won its title, South Korea took a huge step forward by earning the Division II, Group A world championship at the Olympic rink in Gangneung.
“I was like, ‘I’d better win, so we can both bring home gold,’ ” Marissa said. “I’m really proud of our team. It was a big boost for our confidence going into the Olympics.”
Marissa felt just as nervous a few weeks later, as Hannah waited for the U.S. roster to be announced. When Hannah made it, Marissa felt as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders, while her parents rejoiced.
“This was always Hannah’s dream, to make it to the Olympics,” Robin Brandt said. “For Marissa to get there, too, it’s a bonus. I don’t think we’ll really believe it’s happening until we’re there.”
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South Korea is investing $20 million in its hockey programs to prepare for the Winter Games, which has enabled the women’s team to make several trips abroad — including to Minnesota — for training and competition. In September, it will return to the state for a training camp and a series of exhibition games against WCHA teams, highlighted by a Sept. 24 matchup with the Gophers.
That will give Marissa Brandt a brief reunion with her husband, Brett Ylonen, and her parents. But when she leaves Sunday for an eight-month residency with the national team, she will say goodbye to Hannah until the Olympics begin on Feb. 9. The next time they see each other, Marissa plans to introduce Hannah to some of the foods and phrases and sights they learned about in those Korean culture camps during their childhood.
Greg and Robin Brandt had discussed taking a family trip to Korea for years, ever since their daughters were in high school. They never had gotten around to planning it, until they found a perfect — if highly unexpected — reason.
“I always thought I would go back to Korea sometime when I was older,” Marissa said. “But I never thought it would be like this.’’