VADNAIS HEIGHTS, Minn. — Marissa Brandt was wrapping up her prosperous small-college hockey career, she believed, when the life-changing phone call came during her senior year.
South Korea’s fledgling national team was building a roster for the 2018 Winter Olympics, and the host nation was inviting her to the country of her birth to try out. Two weeks later, she was departing Minnesota on a journey of reconnection with the place she left when she was 4 1⁄2 months old.
“I’m happy I took that leap of faith,” she said.
Three years later, she is a South Korean citizen who is slowly learning the language and realizing she is a bit of a celebrity. There is another twist to the tale, too, with an even more rewarding result: Her sister, Hannah Brandt, is playing for Team USA, giving their parents, Greg and Robin, the unexpected chance to cheer for both daughters in Pyeongchang in February.
“It would be fun to play her in the Olympics,” Marissa said. “Not awkward at all.”
The awkward part of the story actually came years ago, when kindergarten-age Marissa and Hannah were signed up for Korean culture camp.
“I absolutely did not like going,” Marissa said, “but Hannah loved it, so we kept going back. It was funny, actually. She loved the Korean food and the taekwondo, and I didn’t like anything about it.”
Hannah was old enough to know Marissa was adopted from South Korea. She just thought her sister was born at 30,000 feet somewhere above the Pacific.
“Hannah used to tell me that she wished she was born on the plane instead of Marissa,” Robin recalled, reflecting on her American-born child’s early interest in this foreign land 6,000 miles away that repelled her other daughter despite her roots.
The Brandts were two weeks away from completing Marissa’s adoption in 1993 when they were surprised to learn Robin was pregnant with Hannah. They brought Marissa home in May, and Hannah was born in November. Suddenly, there were two babies in their home in Vadnais Heights, a woodsy suburb about 10 miles north of St. Paul.
The girls did just about everything together: dance, gymnastics, soccer, and like typical Minnesota kids, they quickly took to the ice.
“We were best friends,” Hannah said.
Figure skating was first, but Hannah found hockey more exciting, so Marissa soon followed the puck.
“Even though she’s younger than me,” Marissa said, “I look up to her in so many ways.”
They were almost always on the same team, even helping lead Hill-Murray High School in 2011 to its first girls state tournament appearance. Marissa, a smooth-skating defender, went on to Gustavus Adolphus, an NCAA Division III school in St. Peter, Minnesota. One grade behind her sister, Hannah, a heavily recruited forward, stayed closed to home with the powerhouse University of Minnesota program .
Sometimes the game schedules allowed one to watch the other. The Gophers won three national championships during Hannah’s career, and Marissa was in attendance each time. When they lost the 2014 title game at the end of Hannah’s sophomore season, Marissa couldn’t make it.
Hannah had missed the cut that year for the U.S. team that went to the Sochi Olympics, a defeat off the ice that contributed to her tense wait after tryouts were done last spring to be summoned into a room for a meeting with the coaches as the training camp roster was being assembled. Marissa’s phone rang.
“I was so nervous so I needed to talk to someone. I called her before I headed in. I think woke her up,” Hannah said.
The next ring a few minutes later revealed the news that she was on the team.
“She’s worked so hard to get where she is now,” Marissa said. “I don’t know anyone else more deserving. I’m so excited to be able to share this Olympic experience and journey with her.”
The feeling is mutual, of course.
South Korea’s goalie coach, Rebecca Baker, has strong ties to Minnesota and was the one who learned of Marissa’s heritage, which made her a candidate for the roster. There are four other “imports” on the team, two each from the U.S. and Canada. Chemistry on and off the ice has transcended the cultural and language barriers.
“They’re like my new family,” Marissa said.
Sarah Murray is the head coach of the team; her father, Andy Murray, was an NHL head coach for 10 seasons with the Los Angeles Kings and the St. Louis Blues. She and her assistants have tirelessly helped guide their eager but raw group through a three-year development process that began for some players with a basic understanding of how to properly jump over the boards. There are only 319 registered women’s players among South Korea’s 50 million people, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation’s 2017 survey .
“Our North American-raised players have been doing a great job integrating themselves into our team,” Murray said. “We try to do as many team-building activities as our budget will allow. But I think the biggest thing that has helped them integrate is living with the Korean players.”
The South Koreans came to Minnesota for training camp and exhibition games, and the visit included a team dinner at the Brandt home preceded by a mayoral declaration and firetruck escort. It concluded with a dance party in the basement.
“Marissa has been a wonderful addition to our team,” Murray said. “She is a great player and an even better person.”
Marissa will wear the “A’’ on her jersey as an alternate captain. She’ll also carry the name Yoon Jung Park, given to her at birth. The powerhouse Americans and the South Koreans are in opposite pools, so the sister matchup will be a long shot.
“If it did I think Greg would probably root for Korea because they’re such an underdog,” Robin said. “I’d just cheer for both girls and hope they do well.”