Marissa Brandt, who competes at the Olympics for the unified Korean team under her birth name Yoonjung Park, with her sister Hannah Brandt, who plays for the United States. Photo courtesy of Hannah Brandt
Brandt sisters proud to represent USA, Korea
Sisters competing in the Olympics usually march together in the opening ceremonies. But that’s not always the case.
Take the 2018 women’s hockey players. The Lamoureux twins marched with the United States. The Waidacher sisters marched with Switzerland. But Hannah and Marissa Brandt entered the jubilant, 35,000-capacity PyeongChang Olympic Stadium under separate flags, Hannah with the U.S. and Marissa with the unified Korean team. It’s an unusual situation, but it didn’t stop these two sisters from connecting.
“Just briefly, right before I walked, she found me,” Hannah, 24, revealed. “That was a pretty cool moment, just to be able to see her. I didn’t think I was going to be able to. They arrived pretty late, but it was fun to be able to see her right before I went out there.”
While Hannah celebrated her first Olympic goal in a 5-0 U.S. win over Russia, Marissa, 25, has been in survival mode with her Korean teammates. Playing under her Korean birth name of Yoonjung Park, she earned an assist when Randi Heesoo Griffin scored Korea’s first goal ever in Olympic play during a 4-1 loss to neighboring rival Japan.
“I would say we’re pretty different,” Hannah said of her sister. “She’s a defenceman, I’m a forward. She’s a very smooth skater, I am not. But I think both of us love to play hockey and that’s what’s brought both of us here.”
The story of how the sisters got to these Olympics with different nations is arguably even more important than any results they achieve on the ice.
Born in Seoul, Marissa was adopted in 1992 as a four-month-old by Greg and Robin Brandt after years of trying unsuccessfully to conceive a child. Then, in a wonderful surprise, the Minnesota couple discovered Robin was pregnant that year. Marissa arrived in May and Hannah in November.
After starting out in figure skating, Hannah switched to hockey at age five, and Marissa followed suit three years later. Growing up in the small city of Vadnais Heights (pop. 12,000), the girls were inseparable as they practised, travelled to tournaments, and played summer hockey together.
Hannah was actually more intrigued by Korean culture than her Korean-born sister was in those early years. They attended Korean culture camps and experienced traditional dress and cuisine. And during the 2018 Olympics, Hannah has enjoyed putting her Korean skills to use: “Yeah, it’s fun. My whole team has been learning a lot of Korean language. We’ve just been welcomed so much by everyone here, and it’s been great.”
Both sisters enjoyed great success in college hockey in their home state. Hannah became the all-time leading scorer with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers (115-170-285 in 158 games). She won three national titles and added two IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship golds in 2015 and 2017.
Meanwhile, Marissa became a solid defender with Gustavus Adolphus College at the Division III level. However, Marissa was on the verge of walking away from hockey when Korean national team goalie coach Rebecca Baker contacted her about joining the host team in the run-up to PyeongChang. She decided to go for it.
“Unlike my sister, I never really dreamed about going to the Olympics when I was a kid,” Marissa told the Twin Cities Pioneer Press. “It’s an amazing opportunity, though, and I’m excited to be able to enjoy this experience with her. I’m also lucky it’s in my home country, because then my family can experience where I came from.”
Both the Korean and North American media have been clamoring for Marissa after games at the Kwandong Hockey Centre, especially with the heightened spotlight after 12 North Korean players were incorporated into the roster in January. But she has handled it with grace.
“Marissa is one of our most consistent players,” said Korean head coach Sarah Murray. “I always know what to expect when she goes on the ice. I think she’s been great. She’s been a solid D for us.”
Since Korea did not qualify for the playoffs after three straight losses, Hannah and Marissa won’t have to deal with the combined thrill and stress of facing each other on the rink. Still, they’ve maintained their sisterly bond during the Games.
“For sure, I see her a lot around the village and we’re able to communicate quite a bit,” Hannah explained. “It’s fun to have her to do this experience with.”
While Hannah, who plays on an elite U.S. line with Amanda Kessel and Dani Cameranesi, may be a bigger name in women’s hockey, the notoriety works in reverse in Korea.
“Actually, it’s funny walking around,” said Hannah. “I get ‘Are you Marissa Brandt’s sister?’ all the time! I’m known as Marissa Brandt’s sister and I love it.”
While Greg Brandt is of German ancestry and Robin Brandt is of Danish and Swedish descent, what their daughters’ journey ultimately illustrates is the power of sport to bring people together.
Yes, Hannah and Marissa may have marched into that stadium on 9 February with two different countries. And it would be wonderful for the sisters if Marissa gets to celebrate a Korean win or Hannah gets an Olympic gold medal around her neck. But regardless, when they get back to Vadnais Heights, they’ll have the experience of a lifetime to cherish as one united family.