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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MORE: Vetter tries for third Olympic team 2 months after childbirth

Kenenisa Bekele still eyes Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon world record, but a duel must wait

Kenenisa Bekele
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LONDON — Kenenisa Bekele made headlines last week by declaring “of course I am the best” long distance runner ever. But the Ethiopian was fifth-best at Sunday’s London Marathon, finishing 74 seconds behind Kenya’s Amos Kipruto.

Bekele, 40, clocked 2:05:53, the fastest-ever marathon by a runner 40 years or older. He was with the lead pack until being dropped in the 21st mile.

But Bekele estimated he could have run 90 to 120 seconds faster had he not missed parts of six weeks of training with hip and joint injuries.

“I expect better even if the preparation is short,” he said. “I know my talent and I know my capacity, but really I couldn’t achieve what I expect.”

Bekele is the second-fastest marathoner in history behind Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge, who broke his own world record by clocking 2:01:09 at the Berlin Marathon last week.

“I am happy when I see Eliud Kipchoge run that time,” Bekele said. “It motivates all athletes who really expect to do the same thing.”

LONDON MARATHON: Results

Bekele’s best time was within two seconds of Kipchoge’s previous world record (2:01:39). He described breaking Kipchoge’s new mark as the “main goal” for the rest of his career.

“Yes, I hope, one day it will happen, of course,” Bekele said. “With good preparation, I don’t know when, but we will see one more time.”

Nobody has won more London Marathons than Kipchoge, a four-time champion who set the course record (2:02:37) in 2019. But the two-time Olympic marathon champion did not run this year in London, as elite marathoners typically choose to enter one race each spring and fall.

Bekele does not know which race he will enter in the spring. But it will not be against Kipchoge.

“I need to show something first,” Bekele said. “I need to run a fast time. I have to check myself. This is not enough.”

Kipchoge will try to become the first runner to win three Olympic marathon titles at the Paris Games. Bekele, who will be 42 in 2024, has not committed to trying to qualify for the Ethiopian team.

“There’s a long time to go before Paris,” Bekele said. “At this moment I am not decided. I have to show something.”

So who is the greatest long distance runner ever?

Bekele can make a strong case on the track:

Bekele
Four Olympic medals (three gold)
Six World Championship medals (five gold)
Former 5000m and 10,000m world-record holder

Kipchoge
Two Olympic medals
Two World Championship medals (one gold)

But Kipchoge can make a strong case on the pavement:

Bekele
Second-fastest marathoner in history
Two World Marathon Major victories

Kipchoge
Four of the five best marathon times in history
Two-time Olympic marathon champion
12 World Marathon Major victories

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Yalemzerf Yehualaw, Amos Kipruto win London Marathon

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Ethiopian Yalemzerf Yehualaw became the youngest female runner to win the London Marathon, while Kenyan Amos Kipruto earned the biggest victory of his career in the men’s race.

Yehualaw, 23, clocked 2:17:26, prevailing by 41 seconds over 2021 London champ Joyciline Jepkosgei of Kenya.

Yehualaw tripped and fell over a speed bump around the 20-mile mark. She quickly rejoined the lead pack, then pulled away from Jepkosgei by running the 24th mile in a reported 4:43, which converts to 2:03:30 marathon pace; the women’s world record is 2:14:04.

Yehualaw and Jepkosgei were pre-race favorites after world record holder Brigid Kosgei of Kenya withdrew Monday with a right hamstring injury.

On April 24, Yehualaw ran the fastest women’s debut marathon in history, a 2:17:23 to win in Hamburg, Germany.

She has joined the elite tier of female marathoners, a group led by Kenyan Peres Jepchirchir, the reigning Olympic, New York City and Boston champion. Another Ethiopian staked a claim last week when Tigist Assefa won Berlin in 2:15:37, shattering Yehualaw’s national record.

Joan Benoit Samuelson, the first Olympic women’s marathon champion in 1984, finished Sunday’s race in 3:20:20 at age 65.

LONDON MARATHON: Results

Kipruto, 30, won the men’s race in 2:04:39. He broke free from the leading group in the 25th mile and crossed the finish line 33 seconds ahead of Ethiopian Leul Gebresilase, who said he had hamstring problems.

Kipruto, one of the pre-race favorites, had never won a major marathon but did finish second behind world record holder Eliud Kipchoge in Tokyo (2022) and Berlin (2018) and third at the world championships (2019) and Tokyo (2018).

Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele, the second-fastest marathoner in history, was fifth after being dropped in the 21st mile. His 2:05:53 was the fastest-ever marathon by a runner 40 years or older. Bekele ran his personal best at the 2019 Berlin Marathon — 2:01:41 — and has not run within four minutes of that time since.

The major marathon season continues next Sunday with the Chicago Marathon, headlined by a women’s field that includes Kenyan Ruth Chepngetich and American Emily Sisson.

London returns next year to its traditional April place after being pushed to October the last three years due to the pandemic.

MORE: Bekele looks ahead to Kipchoge chase after London Marathon

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