Hannah Brandt (L) poses with sister Marissa Brandt at Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 9, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
GANGNEUNG, South Korea – When Team USA’s Hannah Brandt watches the Korean women’s ice hockey team play, she pays particular attention to the player with “Yoonjung” on her back.
That’s her sister, who goes by Marissa Brandt back home in Minnesota.
“Obviously, I can still pick her out from a mile away,” Hannah said. “Sometimes with family and friends, they get a little confused when it doesn’t say Brandt on the back.”
Marissa, 25, was adopted as an infant from South Korea by Greg and Robin Brandt. Hannah, 24, was born about 11 months later.
“It’s nice to be able to share our journeys together with this whole experience,” Marissa said. “Even though we’re not on the same team we have very similar paths. It’s nice to have her here with me and to experience this with her.”
The story of the Brandt siblings is unique at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. Not only are they playing for two different countries, but the Korean team has gotten inordinate press coverage because it is made up of 23 players from South Korea and 12 from North Korea.
As a unified team, the Korean players have inspired the two nations that have been at odds for decades. Angela Ruggiero, a hockey gold medalist and International Olympic Committee member from the United States, has suggested that the team be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Marissa, whose full Korean name is Yoonjung Park, is an assistant team captain. She said the North Korean players, who were added to the team last month, “fit in great with our team and we’re just trying to get them integrated as quickly as possible. They’re very disciplined. They work hard, and have a great attitude.
“They’re really nice and friendly, even though I can’t talk to most of them because I don’t speak Korean. We still smile and hug each other every day.”
Because Marissa speaks English, she has been a spokesperson for the team with Western media.
“Obviously, it’s in the back of our heads that this goes bigger than just hockey in this combined team,” Marissa said. “We just focus on the game and focus on what we can control. That’s all we can do.”
Hannah said the unified team brings attention to the sport of ice hockey. “It’s obviously a feel-good story for the Olympics,” she said. “What the Olympics are all about is bringing people together, so it definitely does that.”
Korea lost its three preliminary round games and will now play for seventh or eighth place.
Team USA won two of its three games, falling to rival Canada, and moves on the semifinals.
The Brandt sisters, who grew up in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, were figure skaters first, then switched to playing ice hockey.
“I started playing hockey first, then she followed along a few years later,” said Hannah. “I could not have imagined this happening, ever.”
They were on the same teams growing up, with Hannah a forward and Marissa a defenseman.
“I would say overall, I’m more intense,” Hannah said, “but we both have that competitive drive.”
They also attended Korean culture camp together, where they learned the language, ate Korean food, practiced taekwondo and wore hanboks, the native Korean clothing. “I definitely was always interested in the Korean cultural aspect, maybe even more so than my sister when I was younger,” Hannah said.
“It was fun. Marissa bought me a snack food yesterday that I used to love when I was in Korean culture camp, so that kind of brought me back a little bit to that. It’s cool to be here, to finally experience the culture firsthand.”
The paths of the two sisters diverged in college.
While Hannah helped the University of Minnesota win three NCAA titles, Marissa played for Gustavus Adolphus College, a Division III school in St. Peter, Minnesota.
Knowing that South Korea would be awarded a berth in the eight-team tournament by virtue of being the host country, Marissa offered her services to the country’s hockey association via email. She didn’t hear back.
“I thought my career was done,” Marissa said.
Then her senior year, she got a phone call asking her to come to Korea for a tryout. “Fortunately, I said yes,” she said.
For a little over two years, Marissa has been going back and forth from Korea to Minnesota, where she lives with her husband Brett Ylonen, a former collegiate soccer goaltender.
Hannah was part of the U.S. Women’s National Team in residency in Wesley Chapel, Florida, and was named to her first Olympic team. They kept each with each other’s games via computer and would communicate often via text or Skype.
In January 2017, they played against each other in an outdoor exhibition game, with Hannah’s Minnesota Whitecaps winning.
The Brandt sisters hadn’t seen each other since Christmas when they met up in the Olympic Village to have lunch and catch up.
Their parents arrived in time for the Opening Ceremony and are staying throughout the Games.
Robin Brandt told Reuters that it was a relief that they wouldn’t play each other, “because who would you root for?” she said. “Greg thinks he’d root for Korea because they’re the underdogs.”
But Marissa will join her parents in rooting for Hannah and Team USA. She hopes her participation at these Games will help expand the sport in Korea and she wants to be a role model for her team as well as for adoptees.
“Personally for me,” Marissa said, “it goes bigger than hockey.”