NEW YORK (Reuters) - Soon after South Korea was awarded the 2018 Winter Olympics, Marissa Brandt sent an e-mail to the country’s ice hockey federation. If they needed talent for their fledgling team, she had just the ticket: her.
Born in South Korea and adopted as an infant by Greg and Robin Brandt, Marissa grew up playing ice hockey with her younger sister Hannah in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and went on to play at nearby Gustavus Adolphus College.
There was no answer to that email, but four years later Marissa did get a call. The coaches for South Korea’s team had heard of a Korean-born player in Minnesota. How about flying to Seoul for a tryout?
“I didn’t know anybody in Korea. I don’t speak Korean, so it was very terrifying for me to go, by myself, 15-hour plane ride, not knowing anybody,” Marissa said after a recent exhibition game in Connecticut.
“But I immediately found myself saying ‘yes’ over the phone.”
Now the 25-year-old is preparing to wear South Korea’s colors when the 2018 Games begin in February, an assistant team captain no less.
And if having one Olympian in the house were not enough for the Brandts, it turns out Marissa could face off against her sister in Pyeongchang.
Hannah, born to the Brandts within months of Marissa’s arrival, has been named in the U.S. squad.
“It’ll be cool just to be there with her, and for both of us to be making our first Olympics,” Hannah, 24, said in an interview in Boston.
For their mom Robin? It’s understandably “overwhelming.”
The Brandt sisters’ start on ice occurred as it often does for girls, on figure skates.
“I didn’t envision either one of them going in the direction of hockey,” Robin Brandt said.
Hannah was the first to make the switch, even though her first experience - a one-hour practice with a boys team when she was about five - left her in tears.
“She wanted to be better than the boys, and she was determined to go back,” Robin said.
Marissa, despite being a “lovely” figure skater in her mother’s eye, was soon keen to join her.
Robin remembers sitting with Hannah when she was nine or 10 years old. “‘Mom,’ she goes, ‘how are they going to find me?’”
“‘What are you talking about?’” Robin asked.
“‘How will they know where to find me for the Olympics?’” Robin recalled with a laugh in a recent telephone interview.
“She had a tenacity. She’d be on the ice all the time, falling, but she’d be scoring from her stomach!”
Indeed, Hannah can score.
She won three Division I National Collegiate Athletic Association championships titles in four years at the University of Minnesota and tallied a school-record 115 goals and 170 assists.
In 2014, she was shortlisted for the U.S. squad that went to the Olympics in Sochi but did not make the cut.
Marissa’s playing career suffered a setback in high school as a result of back-to-back concussions which took nearly a year to recover fully from.
“The career she might have had was probably affected by what happened,” Robin said.
At Gustavus, a power at the collegiate Division III level, she switched from forward to defense, the position she plays now for South Korea.
Hannah admires her sister for the risk she took to help promote ice hockey in South Korea.
“For her to be able to help grow the game in Korea I think is pretty cool.”
For Marissa, whose Korean name is Yoonjung Park, it has grown larger than that.
“It’s bigger than just being there to win games,” said Marissa.
“Being adopted and playing in Korea now, I hope that adoptees can be comfortable or want to embrace their birth countries.
“For me growing up, I didn’t want that at all. It’s really been kind of life changing for me to be able to be in Korea and have that ‘Aha’ moment of being proud to be Korean. So it goes deeper than just hockey.”
It remains a long shot that the Brandt sisters will face each other in Pyeongchang.
The Americans are in a different group from their hosts in the preliminary round and making the knock-out round is a tall order for the hosts.
Facing each other is also rare as they were always on the same team as children and played at colleges that never met.
They played each other in an exhibition game last January, though, Hannah scoring two goals as her Minnesota Whitecaps came out on top 3-1.
“I’m like ‘Okay Hannah, just make me look good’,” Marissa recalled.
“I think I had actually taken the puck from her because I know she wasn’t happy about it,” Hannah said. “I’m like, ‘sorry’.”
For Robin Brandt, the unlikelihood of their meeting at the Olympics is good news.
“I think it’s a bit of a relief in one way, because who would you root for?” Robin asked. “Greg thinks he’d root for Korea because they’re the underdogs.”
While it’s widely assumed the Americans will be in the hunt for gold, Greg Brandt cautioned against being too quick to dismiss South Korea.
“It’s not impossible,” he said. “They are very tenacious. They never quit. They might surprise people there.”
Reporting By Dan Burns, editing by Nick Mulvenney
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