As the jumbo jet dipped toward her homeland in July 2015, Marissa Brandt was overcome with fear. She had been born in South Korea but adopted at 4 months old, whisked around the world to suburban Minnesota, and this was her first time coming back. She didn’t speak the language, disliked spicy foods, remembered none of the hangul (alphabet) characters that studied as a kid. Then 22, Brandt didn’t even know who was picking her up at Incheon International Airport, at least until she found someone holding a sign with her American name.
“Absolutely terrifying,” Brandt says, but she never considered looking back. Several weeks prior, she had been studying for finals during her senior year at Gustavus Adolphus College. Then an assistant coach from the South Korean women’s national hockey team called. Could the smooth-skating defenseman fly overseas for a tryout? Without hesitation, Brandt agreed. Not only could she represent the host nation at the 2018 Winter Olympics, reconnecting with her roots on the sport’s greatest stage; here was a chance to join her younger sister Hannah, a forward for Team USA, next February in PyeongChang. “It’s something I’d never even dreamed about,” Marissa says. “You can’t make this up.”
Hockey had always kept the siblings close. They spent countless weekends traveling to youth games, blasting Carrie Underwood CDs in the car. As linemates they led Hill-Murray High School to its first-ever state tournament appearance in 2011. That fall, Marissa enrolled at Gustavus and started wearing 22 for the Division III juggernaut; a year later, Hannah selected the same number at the University of Minnesota, where she won three national titles and became the Gophers’ all-time leading scorer. Heck, the entire reason Marissa started playing in the first place was because Hannah quickly tired of their figure skating lessons and traded pirouettes for pucks. “I think I got bored by myself,” Marissa says. “I wanted to be with Hannah.”
It used to be that Marissa shied away from her heritage. Whereas Hannah loved the experience of attending weekend Korean school and summer culture camps, learning taekwondo and traditional dances, Marissa asked her parents if she could stop going. “She didn’t think of herself as a Korean adoptee,” Hannah says. “She wanted to be here, to be like everyone else.”
But look at her now. Whenever she returns to Minnesota during training breaks Marissa eagerly takes her family out for bulgogi (marinated beef) and mandu (dumplings), a significant departure from what she clung to early on in Korea—“pizza across the street,” Hannah says. She introduced Hannah to K-pop tunes that the Korean players play before games, and looks forward to showing everyone around the bustling shopping corridor of Myeongdong. The language has been difficult to grasp, but Marissa tries hard. Still that doesn’t stop her teammates from playfully calling her Babo. (That means idiot.)
At the Olympics, Marissa will go by something else: Park Yoon-jung, the name given to her at birth. “That’s what tied me to here,” she says. “That’s all I knew.” The connection gets stronger every day. Six months ago, on the same day that Hannah and Team USA won gold at the IIHF world championships, South Korea clinched first place in Group A of the Division II tournament, unbeaten in five games at Kwandong Hockey Centre outside Seoul. As the flag raised into the rafters and the anthem played, Marissa stood on the blue line and beamed with honor. “In that moment,” she says, “I thought, ‘I’m proud to be Korean. This is the identity I’m going to create.’”
The sport is slowly developing there—only 319 female players are registered in a country of more than 50 million residents, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation, and the women’s national team is ranked 22nd in the world, 13 spots lower than any other participant at the Winter Games. But this has endowed Marissa with a higher purpose. “People always ask, what’s your goal?” she says. “I’m not going to say let’s win gold. Of course I would love for that to happen, but for me it’s bigger than the game of hockey. I guess I hope to be a role model. I want more young girls to think hockey’s fun.”
After all, that’s how she got hooked alongside Hannah. Tearing up the neighborhood streets on rollerblades, skating on the outdoor community rink nearby. Somehow, though, they had never faced each other until the South Koreans went barnstorming last winter and stopped in Minnesota for an outdoor game against the Whitecaps, Hannah’s semi-pro team. They geeked out when Marissa introduced everyone to Hannah and other American players. “You could hear the screams throughout the arena,” says their father, Greg Brandt.
This fall, while Hannah was off training with Team USA in Florida, Marissa and her teammates returned to a hero’s welcome. A fire truck surprised the team bus at the Vadnais Heights city limit and escorted everyone to the Brandt’s family home, where neighbors were waiting in the driveway and waving Korean flags. They ate chicken and pasta, and held a dance party in the basement. By official mayoral decree, Sept. 23, 2017 was dubbed Marissa and Hannah Brandt Day. “Whereas,” the proclamation reads, “Hannah and Marissa Brandt through their support and love for each are great role models for young girls around the world. The world will be watching as these sisters compete at the highest level of hockey.”
Much of this is beyond Marissa’s wildest dreams. She was preparing for life after graduation, pondering jobs and marriage, when the tryout call came. And even that felt taking like a leap of faith for so many reasons. But now she is an ambassador for the sport, a veteran presence on a young roster. Now she wonders if her birth mother will hear about her story and reach out, no matter how slim the odds. "She went from being done with hockey, figuring out what she was going to do next," Hannah says, "and now it’s like a whole new life she’s taking on there."
For Hannah, the Olympics always seemed like an attainable dream; earlier this week she scored twice to lift Team USA in the title game of the Four Nations Cup, one step closer to making the final roster. There was a time when she wouldn’t allow herself to dream that big, telling others that her goal was simply to play Division I. And it sucked when she was among the final cuts for Sochi, Russia, during her sophomore season at Minnesota four years ago; Marissa remembers how she came home and cried.
Then Hannah looks ahead. She thinks about seeing Marissa in South Korea, marching in the opening ceremonies, skating around in a jersey with her birth name. About eating and shopping and hanging out in the Olympic village. “It kinds of feels like fate,” Hannah says. “I still have a hard time imagining all this happening. It really is perfect.”