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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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Bryan brothers to retire at 2020 U.S. Open, don’t plan on Olympics

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Bob and Mike Bryan said they will retire after the 2020 U.S. Open, ending a tennis career that’s included a men’s record 16 Grand Slam doubles titles together.

They also don’t plan to play at the Tokyo Olympics, their manager later said in an email.

The twins are 41 years old, having spent more than half their lives as professionals.

“A part of us, feels like, is dying,” Bob Bryan said on Tennis Channel. “But we’re really clear about this decision. It’s going to be great to have a finish line.”

Mike said that in 2020 they will play all the events they “really love,” including all four Grand Slams and American tournaments. The Olympics weren’t mentioned.

Rather, they will see how they’re feeling midway through the year, they said on the Tennis.com podcast.

The Bryans earned doubles gold at the 2012 London Games but withdrew from the Rio Olympics six days before the Opening Ceremony. They cited making their family’s health a “top priority” and later said Zika virus concerns were “a very small part of” the decision.

The Bryans own 118 titles overall but nearly ended their partnership after Bob underwent hip surgery a year ago. He rejoined Mike this season, reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals and winning two ATP doubles titles.

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A century later, Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori can bring Japan Olympic tennis to forefront

Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori
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When Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori take the courts at the Tokyo Olympics, perhaps together, they will be doing so 100 years after tennis players won Japan’s first Olympic medals in any sport.

Tennis is not usually one of the handful of marquee competitions at the Games, in part because it is one of the sports whose biggest event is not the Games themselves.

“We have been playing for these Grand Slams, and I think that’s why we train for,” Nishikori said at the U.S. Open in August, when asked to compare the meaning of winning one of tennis’ four annual majors to earning a medal at a home Olympics. “That’s going to be the biggest goal to winning Grand Slams.”

Yet the term “Grand Slam” had not been conceived — for golf or tennis — at the time of the 1920 Antwerp Games. There, Ichiya Kumagae earned silvers in singles and doubles with Seiichiro Kashio to become the first Japanese Olympic medalists.

Kumagae was Japan’s first notable international tennis player, reaching the 1918 U.S. Open semifinals (then called the U.S. National Championships) and beating Bill Tilden in the final of the 1919 Great Lakes Championships.

Kumagae, born in 1890, had not seen a tennis racket or ball until his 20s, according to Roger W. Ohnsorg‘s “The First Forty Years of American Tennis.”

“He came here to America in 1916, the possessor of a wonderful forehand drive and nothing else,” Tilden wrote in “The Art of Lawn Tennis.” Kumagae was listed by Ohnsorg as 5 feet, 3 inches, 134 pounds and requiring glasses at all times. Later in 1922, Kumagae’s engagement to the daughter of a wealthy politician was published as a news brief in The New York Times.

Nearly a century later, Nishikori and Osaka brought more Japanese tennis breakthroughs. Nishikori became the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final at the 2014 U.S. Open. Last year, Osaka became the first Japanese singles player to win a Grand Slam, also at the U.S. Open.

This past June, Japan’s annual Central Research sports survey (1,227 people, age 20+) put Nishikori and Osaka as its respondents’ fourth- and sixth-favorite athletes, past or present. Baseball players Ichiro (retired), Shohei Ohtani and Shigeo Nagashima (long retired) and figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu rounded out the top five.

Osaka’s U.S. Open title was voted the top sports moment of Emperor Akihito’s reign from 1989 to April 30, beating Ichiro’s retirement and Hanyu’s repeat Olympic crown in PyeongChang. Perhaps there was some recency bias.

Akatsuki Uchida, a tennis journalist from Japan, said that Nishikori’s U.S. Open final was a bigger moment for Japanese tennis than Osaka’s win over Serena Williams, though.

“Tennis at that time [in 2014] was not broadcast in Japan,” she said at the U.S. Open. “Media coverage of tennis was decreasing before Kei made that final. For most of Japanese, not tennis fans, but ordinary people, it came from out of nowhere. … He became like an overnight sensation. Since then, the situation of tennis in Japan changed dramatically.

“If [Osaka] wins the title before Kei won the title here, it could have been way bigger, but since Kei made the final before Naomi, it made Naomi’s achievement, still a big deal, less surprising.”

Another key difference: Nishikori spent the majority of his childhood in Japan, while Osaka’s family, with a Haitian father and Japanese mother, moved to the U.S. when she was 3 years old.

Osaka has dual citizenship, but Japanese law requires one to be chosen over the other by the 22nd birthday. Osaka turned 22 last month, before which she confirmed what most had assumed, that she picked Japan.

Uchida was unsure whether Osaka and Nishikori could propel tennis at the Tokyo Games into a greater spotlight among 33 total sports.

“But if Kei and Naomi played mixed doubles, that would be a big thing,” she said.

Nishikori has already reportedly said he plans to enter singles and doubles in Tokyo, the latter with Ben McLachlan, Japan’s top doubles player. McLachlan was born in New Zealand and in 2017 switched representation to Japan, his mother’s birth nation.

But Nishikori did not rule out adding mixed doubles.

“Very hot, very humid, playing singles and two doubles, I don’t know if I can,” he said before the U.S. Open. “I haven’t think too much yet, honestly. I don’t know. I will talk to Naomi later.”

Nishikori smiled as he brought up Osaka’s name at the end of his answer to a question that didn’t mention her. Later in the tournament, Osaka was told Nishikori’s thoughts.

“I would definitely play with him,” said Osaka, who in 2016 was the highest-ranked eligible player not to make the Rio Olympic field. “I just — I would actually need to practice doubles for the first time in my life. Because you cannot play mixed doubles with Kei Nishikori and lose in the first round of the Olympics in Tokyo. That would be the biggest — like, I would cry. I would actually cry for losing a doubles match. Yeah, definitely I think that that would be so, like, historic in a way. And I would love to do it, but I need to practice my doubles.”

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