PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — It was 1993, and the Brandts had been married for 12 years, and they thought they couldn’t have children of their own.
“We had tried,” Greg says. “We had fertility problems.”
It’s a silent sadness faced by many Americans every day. But they had relatives next door with two adopted Korean boys, and so Greg and Robin decided to bring a baby into their lives.
On May 6 of that year, they met little Park Yoon-jung. They didn’t know much of anything about her background, her birth mother, or her story. They just knew she was born in Korea. Her American name would be Marissa.
But even before Marissa arrived, Greg and Robin got a surprise: they were expecting. Her name would be Hannah.
Two little miracles in one year.
“Marissa was more of a dainty, frilly girl,” Greg says. “Hannah was more of a tomboy.” She wanted to play football, and her parents suggested hockey instead, and soon both girls were playing. That wasn’t unexpected in Minnesota, land of 10,000 rinks. What was unexpected was that both were quite good.
They were hockey teammates all throughout high school, Hannah playing forward and Marissa playing defense. “She’s a very smooth skater,” Hannah jokes now. “I am not.”
Hannah was on the fast track to a scholarship to Minnesota, but Marissa would play in college as well, at Division III Gustavus Adolphus.
Hannah had a shot at international competition. And to the surprise of even herself, Marissa did too.
“She got a call from the Korean team asking if she be interested in trying out,” Greg explains. “She was a little hesitant; she thought hockey was over. Two weeks later she’s on a flight to Seoul, not knowing anybody, even who was picking her up.”
That was more than two years ago. And suddenly the Brandt sisters of Minnesota both became Olympic hockey players, on different teams.
It has not been easy. Marissa has been far away from her husband, Brett Ylonen, and her Korean isn’t fluent yet. She didn’t immerse herself in the culture right away, continually choosing pizza over kimchi. She had to get citizenship in the nation where she was born.
Then there was the ramp-up in tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. It peaked late last fall, when President Trump spoke of “Fire and fury” and there was even some uncertainty from the White House about the United States attending the Games. Around that time, Hurricane Irma was bearing down on the Gulf Coast of Florida, where Hannah and Team USA were training.
“This was supposed to be fun,” Greg remembers thinking. “We were absolutely terrified.”
The Olympic fortnight has been wild in a different way, with a barrage of interview requests from two hemispheres. Only a few weeks ago, it was determined that North Korean players would join Marissa’s team, and some of her friends would have to sit out games. It was an unfair burden, and as one of the alternate captains, Marissa had to shoulder a large part of it.
Hannah and Marissa haven’t seen much of each other this month, on or off the ice. They found each other briefly, right before Opening Ceremonies, and shared that moment. Then it was back to chasing the same dream as members of two different nations.
Greg and Robin have come to the rink every day. One day it’s in USA jerseys, one day it’s in Korea colors. They’ve cheered for Hannah’s two wins and suffered through Marissa’s three losses. So far, Hannah has as many goals as the entire Korea squad: 1.
But in one way, Marissa has had the biggest victory. She is an ambassador for a relatively new sport here.
“It’s much less about hockey and more about the social aspects,” Greg says. “It’s been a learning experience for us to find out how raw and emotional this thing has been. She’s going to be part of history.”
Back in Minnesota, she is Hannah’s sister. Here it’s the opposite. She wears her birth name, Park Yoon-jung, on her jersey.
“It’s funny walking around,” Hannah said. “I get, ‘Are you Marissa Brandt’s sister?’ all the time. Here I’m Marissa Brandt’s sister and I love it.”
That brings us to one last part of the story of this family. Marissa still does not know who her birth mother is. There was a chance, and there’s still a chance, that all the publicity will lead her back to her daughter.
“She’s curious, but there’s very little information,” Greg says. “Frankly, she has thought about hockey and not about her. But if she can find her through this journey, she would love to.”
Marissa has expressed some hope to her family that she will at least learn more about who brought her into this world. “But she always made it clear we’re her parents, nothing is going to change,” Greg says. “I would love to have her find that. It’s a piece that’s been missing. It would be nice for her.”
On Wednesday night, the arena was packed for Korea vs. Japan – old foes in a new forum. Hannah showed up for the early minutes, able to break away from the U.S. schedule just for a bit. Korea allowed two quick goals and it looked like another long night for the home team.
But there was energy left, and Korea would use it. Marissa found the puck about halfway through the second period and shoveled it ahead to Randi Heesoo Griffin. She fired a shot and it trickled over the goal line. The entire stadium shook with noise. The Koreans had broken through, had made history, and Marissa would always own a part of that triumph.
After the game, despite the loss, fans feted the team by tossing stuffed animals onto the ice. Then the players, having been eliminated from contention, shuffled through the mixed zone in front of the world’s press, many of them in tears.
In the concourse later that night, the Brandt family gathered, speaking quietly. These postgame talks had happened for years and years, yet this one was poignant and distinct.
“I’m very grateful for this whole experience,” Marissa said. “Being able to represent my birth country and do this tournament with my sister is incredible.”
She had a message for that birth country, too.
“I just hope they’re proud of us,” she said, “coming together on such short notice, staying unified, and showing the world something as small as this, through sport, can help in the long run.”
In 1993, Greg and Robin Brandt got two little miracles. Twenty-five years later, the miracles have become big enough for the whole world to share.
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