Growing up, Hannah and Marissa Brandt were inseparable.
With only 11 months between the pair, the Minnesota sisters were more like best friends, spending all their time together dabbling in different afterschool activities, especially those on the ice.
“We did figure skating and I loved it because it was very girly, but Hannah eventually quit that and just did hockey,” Marissa Brandt, 25, told InsideEdition.com. “I did both sports, but when I was 8, I missed being with my sister so I wanted to follow along.”
The move to focus on hockey was a smart one for both the Brandts, who this month will take to the ice at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The sisters, however, will be competing for different countries — Hannah will represent the U.S., while Marissa will play on the unified Korea team — under serendipitous circumstances neither woman anticipated.
“This couldn’t have worked out any better,” Hannah, 24, said.
In 1992, when she was four months old, Park Yoon-Jung was adopted from South Korea by Greg and Robin Brandt.
The couple had been having difficulties starting a family, but not long after receiving the first picture of the daughter they would soon call Marissa, they discovered they were expecting another baby girl.
After Marissa moved to their home in Minnesota, Hannah was born.
“When I was growing up, I never thought anything of her being adopted,” Hannah said. “But she wanted to fit in; she wanted to be like everyone else.”
When the Brandts enrolled their daughters in a Korean club, it was Hannah who reveled in the culture.
“I didn’t like it at all,” Marissa laughed. “Hannah loved it because she loved the spicy food and she could do the Taekwondo, but I went because Hannah wanted to go. I had to embrace being Korean and it wasn’t something I was comfortable doing at that age.”
Korean club fell by the wayside as the girls became more involved in sports like hockey.
Both excelled in the sport, and later went on to play separately in college.
“We parted ways but we both loved where we went,” said Marissa, who played at Gustavus Adolphus College.
Hannah, who was a star forward for the University of Minnesota, had long aspired to compete in the Olympics. She narrowly missed qualifying for the Sochi games four years ago.
“That was disappointing, but I learned a lot from that experience,” she said. “I learned there was more ahead to give, to improve a lot off the ice, get a lot stronger and faster... I thought I had given it my all, but there was still a little bit more in me.”
Marissa’s ambitions for life after college were less centered on hockey.
“When I was younger, I never really dreamed of going to the Olympics — that was Hannah’s thing,” she said. “For me, it was just to play hockey in college.”
So it came as a surprise to Marissa when she learned the South Korean team was interested in her.
One of South Korea’s goalkeeping coaches lives in Minnesota and found out Marissa was eligible. She was studying for finals when she received a life-changing phone call asking her to try out.
“It was very out of the blue,” she said. “I immediately found myself saying yes, not even thinking about it. It’s just been back and forth ever since.”
Marissa and Hannah had long spoke of going to Korea together, and discussed a trip to Marissa’s birth country after college to explore her roots.
But Marissa found herself going at it alone after agreeing to try out for the Olympic team.
“When I first went over, I was completely terrified,” she said. “I didn’t speak the language and didn’t know anyone there. But the girls were very welcoming. They teach me Korean, I teach them English — it’s a little trade-off.”
Five other teammates, who come from either Canada or the U.S., have also been instrumental in helping Marissa adapt.
She completed the process to obtain Korean citizenship in 2016 and will compete under her birth name, Park Yoon-Jung.
“It’s been an easy transition,” she said.
Marissa also relied on the support of her family during the process. Her parents and husband have been her backbone, but her sister is the one uniquely qualified to understand what she is going through in preparing for the Olympics.
“It’s been fun to be able to keep in touch with her throughout the whole process,” Hannah said. “She has always supported me every step of the way and it’s fun for me to reciprocate with her this time around.”
Both women’s days are packed with practices, meetings and workouts, but they make sure they have time for each other.
“She’s having the same kind of training days and if she’s having a bad day, if she does really well, we’re there for each other,” Hannah said.
That includes watching as many of each other’s match-ups.
“She’s my sister," Hannah said. "She’s my best friend and I’m always going to make time for her. That’s important to me, and it’s energizing to be able to watch her doing what she loves to do.”
It’s also been a joy for the family to watch Marissa come into her own as a Korean.
“If this whole thing hadn’t happened, she would’ve never been able to experience the culture the way she is now,” Hannah said. “She’s best friends with 20 Korean people, they’ve taught her the language and about the music and food. She’s been able to bring that back here and teach our family. She’s so proud of where she comes from and that’s great.”
It was after a win this past April that Marissa discovered that pride.
“I remember standing on the blue line, seeing the flag and thinking, ‘Wow, I’m really proud to represent my country,’” Marissa said. “I remember in that specific moment, I was really okay with who I was and what I looked like and where I came from.”
Since South Korea is hosting the Olympics, its competitors are guaranteed a spot at the games, so the women’s hockey team has a chance to put its hard work to the test.
Neither Brandt sister looks at the timing and unique circumstances as a coincidence.
“This could not have worked out any better,” Hannah said. “We’re fulfilling two dreams at once."
The Brandt women also view the opportunity to put hockey further on the map in both the U.S. and South Korea, saying they don’t take their positions as role models in the field lightly.
“Growing the game is something I’ve always taken to heart," Hannah said. "I think it’s awesome to be able to be a role model for girls. I was lucky to grow up where I did. Not everyone gets to experience hockey in that way.”
The fact that the National Hockey League has chosen to bar its players from participating in the Pyeongchang Games also gives the women’s team a unique opportunity to shine.
“Women’s games are going to be spotlighted and I think that’s going to be good for the game,” Hannah said.
Marissa, whose team will make a unified debut at the Olympics with the women’s team from North Korea, also views the opportunity to show young girls that they, too, can play the sport.
“People always ask, 'What’s your goal?' It’s bigger than hockey — of course I’d love to win games and advance out of my division,” she said. “But I hope to be a role model for young girls in Korea, to show they can play hockey and that it’s fun.”
She also hopes her story can inspire others who may struggle with their identity after being adopted.
“It's OK for it to take you until age 24 to be okay with it,” Marissa said. “Being adopted and being OK with my heritage, branching out in this way — I hope that inspires people, too."