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U.S.-South Korea sister act shapes up for PyeongChang Olympics

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Hannah Brandt is trying out for the U.S. women’s hockey team this week. She is favored to make it and then debut at the Olympics in PyeongChang.

Her older sister, Marissa Brandt, is also confident she’ll skate in PyeongChang, though she is not trying out for the U.S. team.

Marissa plays for South Korea’s national team.

A U.S. Olympian’s sibling competing for another country at the same Winter Games? It has never happened. It likely will next February.

There is the unique story of the Krueger brothersJohn-Henry (U.S.) and Cole (Hungary), short track speed skaters. The Brandt sisters are also an exceptional case.

On May 6, 1993, a 4-month-old South Korean girl flew from Seoul to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, chaperoned of course.

At the gate, Greg and Robin Brandt cradled their daughter Marissa for the first time. (Those were the days you could get to an airport gate without a ticket, Greg joked.)

The Brandts had trouble conceiving early in their marriage, so they decided to adopt. They chose a South Korean program because other family members had previously done the same.

The Brandts brought to the airport balloons, all kinds of relatives and even video and still cameras that day. Greg still remembers Robin passing Marissa to him.

“You know how you’re supposed to support the back of an infant’s neck? I didn’t do that very well,” Greg said with a laugh. “Of course, this is all on video. I took a hold of her, and her head made a little bit of a swoon.”

The South Korean adoption process took two years. In that time, the Brandts did conceive. Robin was three months pregnant when she first held 4-month-old Marissa at the gate.

“We thought, what a great blessing to potentially have two children to fulfill our family,” Greg said. “We wanted to have more than one child anyway, and we knew we may never be able to get pregnant again.”

Marissa’s younger sister, Hannah, was born on Nov. 27, 1993.

Marissa and Hannah did everything together growing up outside the Twin Cities, though they obviously did not look like sisters.

Dance classes, soccer, even a South Korean culture camp (which Hannah enjoyed and Marissa disliked. “I just wanted to not really dig into the Korean heritage, stuff like that,” Marissa said. “I just wanted to be like everyone else.”).

They were most comfortable on the ice.

Both girls took skating lessons by age 5, but this is where they diverged. Marissa showed promise as a graceful figure skater. Hannah, unlike the other girls, wore black hockey skates in class and was jokingly described as “Herman Munster on skates” by her dad.

A tipping point came when Hannah told her father that she wanted to start playing football with the neighborhood boys. They settled on hockey. Marissa switched from figure skating to hockey about two years later, and the two played together through high school.

Hannah compiled one of the greatest prep and college careers in Minnesota history.

She earned a spot on the U.S. women’s national team for the 2012 World Championship at age 18, before her freshman season at the University of Minnesota. She remains the youngest American woman to skate at an Olympics or worlds in the last decade.

Marissa was not as highly recruited out of high school. She played at Gustavus Adolphus College, a Division III school an hour south of Minneapolis.

PyeongChang was awarded the 2018 Winter Olympics in July 2011, shortly after Marissa graduated high school. At the time, Marissa tried to email South Korea’s hockey federation to express interest in trying out for their Olympic team years down the road. (South Korea has never qualified a men’s or women’s hockey team for the Olympics, but receives spots in 2018 as the host nation.)

She received no answer.

Come spring 2015, Marissa believed she had played her final competitive hockey game with the end of her senior season at Adolphus.

She was studying for final exams when she received a call from Rebecca Baker, then a coach with another Minnesota D-III school who also worked with South Korea’s national team.

Baker’s husband was a goalie coach at the University of Minnesota. Somehow, word had trickled to Minnesota head coach Brad Frost that South Korea was looking for players ahead of the Olympics in three years. Frost spoke with Hannah, and Baker eventually received Marissa’s phone number.

Marissa was asked if she wanted to fly to South Korea in a month to try out for the national team.

“It was kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Marissa said. “I thought I was done. So to get that call and to be able to play again was kind of surprising, but also I was happy about it, because I still wanted to play.”

Marissa had not been back to South Korea since she boarded that flight 12 years earlier.

“I was really scared to go over,” she said. “I know nobody there, and I don’t speak the language. It was really intimidating. I just didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into or if any of this was even real because all I had heard was from [the team] was just an email. This guy’s picking you up from the airport. He’ll bring you to the hotel. There was this shred of doubt, like, is this even a real thing? Is this really happening?”

It was. Marissa spent the summer in South Korea, tried out, and coaches apparently liked what they saw.

She joined three other players that the team refers to as “imports” from North America. The other three all had at least one Korean parent, but they were born in the U.S. or Canada.

It took more than one year for Marissa to become a dual citizen. She estimated the other imports’ processes were about half as long, but she still considered hers the easier route.

“They had to do everything in Korean [language] and learn the national anthem,” said Marissa, who mostly had to bring paperwork, such as her birth certificate, to offices. “I’m really bad at Korean.”

Marissa made her national-team debut last month at a lower-level world championship tournament at a 2018 Olympic venue in Gangneung, South Korea. At the same time, Hannah played in the top-level world championship tournament in Plymouth, Mich.

The sisters watched each other’s games via early morning internet streams. The U.S. and South Korea, two teams coached by Minnesotans, won gold medals hours apart.

In two years of back-and-forth Detroit-to-Seoul trips, Marissa gained an appreciation for a culture she once shied away from as a child. Marissa spent the entire winter in South Korea and will return again in July. She says that her new teammates teach her the Korean language, while she reciprocates with English tips where she can.

At worlds, Marissa decided to use her Korean birth name, Park Yoon-Jung, to wear on the back of her national-team jersey. (The North American-born imports kept their English names.)

“At first, I was kind of hesitant, like I kind of wanted Brandt to be on my jersey because that’s all I’ve known growing up,” she said. “But now I guess, looking back, I’m very proud to wear my Korean name because that’s my only tie to Korea. That’s the name my birth mother gave me.”

Marissa stood with her new teammates after winning gold and listened to a national anthem that she could not recite.

“I could have cried at that point,” she said. “It’s being there, standing in your home country, wearing Korea on the front of your jersey, looking up at your flag. It’s a very proud moment.”

Marissa has been asked if she hopes to find her birth parents in South Korea.

“In the back of my head, I just don’t get my hopes up because I know we don’t have much information on her,” she said of her mother. “It would be a one-in-a-million chance that we actually find her.”

Marissa, a defenseman, said she and the other imports are cautiously optimistic that they’ll make the Olympic team, but she doesn’t know when that will be decided.

“She just sees the ice very well,” Hannah said. “She’s a great skater. She’s just very calm and composed. She doesn’t ever get too nervous. She’s graceful on the ice, and I’m kind of the opposite of that.”

Hannah already went through an Olympic team selection process in 2014.

She remembers sitting in a Lake Placid room as head coach Katey Stone read the alphabetical list of national-team players in front of everyone — those who made it and those who were cut. The Bs came and went without a mention of Brandt.

“So I knew pretty much right away that I wasn’t going to be on the team,” Hannah said. “If you don’t make it, you leave right away. They get you off to the airport.”

Hannah is excited for what this Olympic season could bring under new coach Robb Stauber. She wasn’t able to try out for the 2016 Worlds team due to upper-body injuries. The forward joined the third line this season with Alex Carpenter, who scored the 2016 Worlds gold-medal-winning goal, and longtime team captain Meghan Duggan.

Hannah is currently in Tampa trying out with 41 other players. USA Hockey is expected to announce the national team Friday. It’s expected to be made up of 23 players, the same number as the Olympic roster that will be named closer to the Winter Games.

The U.S. and South Korea are in separate groups for the Olympic tournament. South Korea is unlikely to advance to the medal round, so the Brandt sisters likely won’t play each other in PyeongChang. That won’t make it any less unique.

Siblings have competed for different nations at every Summer and Winter Olympics since 2008, according to Olympstats.com. But never has the Olympic sibling set included one athlete from the host nation.

“The potential is pretty incredible,” Greg said. “I told Marissa, the greatest thing will be walking in that stadium as a member of the home country. I said, Hannah will never have that. That will make it really worth it for me, right there.”

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U.S. men look to fill Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte void at swim worlds

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With Michael Phelps retired and Ryan Lochte suspended, the superstars at the world swimming championships clearly lie on the women’s side.

But the men’s events will include world-record chasers, a stinging rivalry and, perhaps, the emergence of Phelps and Lochte’s successor as leading U.S. man.

Caeleb Dressel came through in Rio under arguably the most pressure of any swimmer, starting off the U.S. 4x100m freestyle relay team in his very first Olympic splash with a personal-best time.

Dressel, a 20-year-old who nearly quit swimming three years ago as the No. 1 recruit in the nation, has nine events to choose from at worlds in Budapest starting Sunday.

He qualified in four individual events — 50m and 100m butterflies and freestyles — and is eligible for all five relays (two mixed-gender).

In the last 15 years, only two U.S. men have raced in four individual events at a single Olympics or world championships — Phelps and Lochte.

Dressel is in the medal mix in all of his individual events, ranking No. 1 in the world this year in the 100m fly, No. 3 in the 50m free, No. 4 in the 100m free and No. 5 in the 50m fly. He is also almost guaranteed medals in any relays that he enters given the unmatched U.S. depth.

Dressel has never been to a worlds and raced just one individual event in Rio. He’s the potential breakout star on a U.S. team, surrounded by more proven names.

SWIMMING WORLDS: TV Schedule | Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview | Event Schedule

Ryan Murphy, who swam for the same Jacksonville, Fla., club team as Dressel, swept the backstrokes in Rio and broke the 100m back world record leading off the medley relay. That dominance has not quite carried over so far in 2017. Murphy ranks third in the world in the 100m and 200m backs this year.

Chase Kalisz, a longtime Phelps training partner in Baltimore, has followed up his Rio Olympic 400m individual medley silver medal well this year. He chopped two seconds off his personal best in the 200m IM and goes into Budapest ranked No. 1 in the world in the 400m IM by nearly a half-second.

The U.S. boasts more medal threats including Nathan Adrian (sprint freestyles), Townley Haas (200m free), Cody Miller and Kevin Cordes (breaststrokes), but nobody is a clear favorite.

The surest bets are world-record holders Adam Peaty and Ippei Watanabe in the breaststrokes and Italian Gregorio Paltrinieri in the 1500m free. Paltrinieri could challenge a five-year-old world record held by Sun Yang.

Speaking of Sun, the mercurial Chinese superstar is set to renew his rivalry with Australian Mack Horton. In Rio, Horton memorably called Sun “a drug cheat,” in reference to Sun’s three-month suspension in 2014 for using a banned stimulant.

Horton then went out and beat Sun in the 400m freestyle, dethroning the Olympic and world champion. Horton and Sun could face off in four individual events in Budapest.

Key men’s finals:

Sunday, July 23
400m freestyle — Sun has been two seconds faster than Horton this year
4x100m freestyle relay — Olympic silver medalist France won’t defend world title; U.S. favored

Monday, July 24
100m breaststroke — Peaty has the eight fastest times ever and fastest by .95 this year

Tuesday, July 25
200m freestyle — Haas the only man within .64 of Sun in 2017
100m backstroke — Rio silver medalist Xu Jiayu was .01 shy of Murphy’s WR in April

Wednesday, July 26
200m butterfly — Japan and Hungary lead the post-Phelps-era world; Chad le Clos ranks 8th in 2017
800m freestyle — Italian Gabriele Detti fastest in 2017 by six seconds, but slower than Sun’s winning times in 2011, 2013, 2015

Thursday, July 27
200m individual medley — Phelps, Lochte won the last 12 Olympic/world titles
100m freestyle — Reigning Olympic and world champions’ absences open door for Adrian, Dressel

Friday, July 28
200m backstroke — U.S. won 14 of the last 15 Olympic/world titles, including Murphy in Rio
200m breaststroke — Watanabe broke WR in January; surprise Olympic champ Dmitriy Balandin ranks No. 127 this year
4x200m freestyle relay — U.S., without Lochte, Phelps, looks to take world title back from Great Britain

Saturday, July 29
50m freestyle — Reigning Olympic and world champions’ absences open door for Adrian, Dressel
100m butterfly — Joseph Schooling eyes Phelps’ WR, but Dressel ranks No. 1 in 2017

Sunday, July 30
400m individual medley — Kalisz ranks No. 1 in 2017, but time is .94 slower than Kosuke Hagino in Rio
1500m freestyle — Sun holds WR of 14:31 but hasn’t broken 14:55 since 2014
4x100m medley relay — Great Britain will lean on Peaty to challenge U.S.

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MORE: Michael Phelps not itching to return like in 2013

Katie Ledecky eyes more history as women to star at swimming worlds

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The year after the Olympics isn’t always known for it, but there should be fireworks in the women’s events at the world swimming championships in Budapest next week.

Katie Ledecky could match Missy Franklin‘s record of six gold medals at a single worlds by swimming one more event than she did at the 2015 Worlds and 2016 Olympics. Judging by Ledecky’s times at the U.S. Championships last month, the rising Stanford sophomore is in her usual dominant form.

Hungarian Katinka Hosszu, swimming in front of her home fans, could try to equal Ledecky with four individual golds in backstrokes and individual medleys.

Swede Sarah Sjostrom could do the same in the 50m and 100m butterflies and freestyles, where world records are under threat.

Ledecky, Hosszu and Sjostrom are all bidding to become the first women to three-peat in an individual event at worlds.

Then there’s the return of the greatest rivalry in swimming. After their memorable Rio duel, King and Yulia Efimova rank Nos. 1 and 2 in the world this year in all three breaststrokes.

Spain’s Mireia Belmonte and American Leah Smith have never won an individual world title, but they could be the busiest swimmers of all next week.

Belmonte could race 7,4000 total meters if she makes every event final. Smith could get up to 7,000 meters. Both would outdistance Ledecky and Hosszu in mileage.

SWIMMING WORLDS: TV Schedule | Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview | Event Schedule

The women’s program could have been even more loaded if not for two notable absences. Australian Cate Campbell, the 100m freestyle world-record holder, is sitting out world champs.

Australia beat the U.S. in the 4x100m free relay at the 2015 Worlds and 2016 Olympics, but without Campbell, the Americans are about even with the Aussies. Ledecky’s bid for six golds could hang on this race on the opening night.

Ledecky also greatly benefits from Sjostrom’s decision to skip the 200m freestyle. In Rio, Sjostrom was the closest swimmer to Ledecky in her individual events, coming .35 shy in the 200m free while outsplitting Ledecky in the final 50 meters.

Key women’s finals:

Sunday, July 23
400m freestyle — Ledecky hasn’t lost a 400m free since the 2012 Olympic Trials
4x100m freestyle relay — Showdown with Campbell-less Australia crucial for Ledecky’s six-gold bid

Monday, July 24
100m butterfly — Sjostrom’s only competition is her world record of 55.48
200m individual medley — Nobody has been within a second of Hosszu this year

Tuesday, July 25
100m backstroke — Kylie Masse was .09 off the longest-standing women’s swimming world record at Canadian Champs
1500m freestyle — Ledecky is 25 seconds faster than anyone else this year
100m breaststroke — Efimova is .13 faster than King this year

Wednesday, July 26
200m freestyle — Ledecky’s toughest individual event made easier by Sjostrom’s absence

Thursday, July 27
200m butterfly — Olympic champ Belmonte eyes first world title; Nos. 2, 3, 4 from Rio absent
4x200m freestyle relay — China is strong, but Ledecky is the U.S.’ ace in the hole

Friday, July 28
100m freestyle — Heavy favorite Sjostrom .02 off the world record in June
200m breaststroke — Efimova is two seconds faster than second-ranked King this year

Saturday, July 29
200m backstroke — Kathleen Baker can inherit throne from retired Maya DiRado 
800m freestyle — Likely Ledecky’s sixth and final event, could match Franklin’s gold record

Sunday, July 30
50m freestyle — No. of sub-24-second times this year — Sjostrom: 6; Rest of World: 0
400m individual medley — Hosszu, after breaking WR by two seconds in Rio, slower this year
4x100m medley relay — U.S. should gap Australia, China on breaststroke leg

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MORE: Michael Phelps not itching to return like in 2013

*Correction: The integrity of a Lilly King quote attributed to Agence France-Presse in earlier version of this story has been called into question and was removed.