AS THE JUMBO JET dipped toward her homeland in July 2015, Marissa Brandt was overcome with fear. She had been born in South Korea, then adopted at four months old by a couple in suburban Minneapolis, and this was her first trip back. She didn't speak the language, disliked spicy foods and remembered none of the hangul (alphabet) characters that she had learned as a kid. Then 22, Brandt didn't even know who was picking her up at the Incheon airport, at least until she found someone holding a sign with her American name.
"Absolutely terrifying," Brandt recalls. Several weeks earlier she had been studying for finals during her senior year at Gustavus Adolphus College, in St. Peter, Minn., when an assistant coach from the South Korean women's hockey team asked if the smooth-skating defenseman could fly to Korea for a tryout. Marissa leaped at the offer. She could not only represent the host nation at the 2018 Winter Olympics but also join her younger sister, Hannah, a standout forward for Team USA, next February in PyeongChang.
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 (Maplewood, Minn.) High to its first 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 Minnesota, where she won three national titles and became the Gophers' all-time leading scorer. Heck, the entire reason Marissa started playing hockey was because Hannah had tired of their figure skating and traded pirouettes for pucks. "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 to attend Korean culture camps each summer, practice taekwondo and learn 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."
And now? When she has returned to Minnesota during breaks in training, Marissa eagerly takes her family out for bulgogi (marinated beef) and mandu (dumplings). Last April, hours after Hannah and Team USA won gold at the International Ice Hockey Federation world championships, South Korea clinched first place in the Division II tournament at Kwandong Hockey Centre, where many of the Olympic matches will be played. As the Korean flag rose to the rafters and the anthem played, Marissa stood on the blue line and beamed. "In that moment," she says, "I thought, 'I'm proud to be Korean.'"
Reaching the Olympics was always an attainable dream for Hannah. Four years ago, as a sophomore at Minnesota, she was among the final cuts for Team USA's Sochi roster. Marissa, however, was preparing for life after hockey when the door to her heritage reopened. With the opening ceremony less than 100 days away, Hannah can already imagine Marissa skating with her birth name—Park Yoon-jung—on the back of her jersey.
"It kind of feels like fate," Hannah says. "It really is perfect."
As the Korean flag rose to the rafters and the anthem played, Marissa beamed. "In that moment," she says, "I thought, I'm proud to be Korean."