Brittney Griner arrives in US after Russian prisoner swap

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Lorie Shaull

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Edward Segal, Sports Editor

WNBA superstar Brittney Griner has arrived back in the United States after being released from Russian detention in a prisoner exchange, just in time to spend the holidays with her family.

Griner was initially detained on Feb. 17 when she arrived at the Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow, on her way to play professional basketball in Russia. The seven-time WNBA All-Star was sentenced to nine years in prison for drug possession and smuggling, based on possession of vape cartridges containing cannabis oil, which she said she packed hastily and planned to use in order to manage pain.

Cannabis is illegal in Russia.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist unsuccessfully appealed the Russian court’s decision on Oct. 25, claiming the legal proceedings that led to the guilty verdict were unlawful.

Nearly two months later on Dec. 8, Griner was swapped in a prisoner exchange for Viktor Bout, a former arms dealer who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for conspiring to sell “tens of millions of dollars in weapons that U.S. officials said were to be used against Americans,” according to ABC.

Known as the “Merchant of Death,” Bout was arrested in Thailand in 2008 after undercover U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration operatives posed as members of a Columbian militant group looking to buy weapons to be used against American aircraft.

Bout began his sentence in 2012, while Griner began her nine-year sentence on Aug. 4. Talks of the negotiation began in May, with different names thrown into the discussion at various points of Griner’s detainment, according to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

American Paul Whelan was notably missing from the prisoner swap, following unsuccessful attempts by the U.S. Department of State to negotiate the release of the former Marine as part of the Griner-Bout exchange, Blinken said.

Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in prison for espionage in 2018, while attending the wedding of another former Marine in Moscow. The Russian government had accused him of “receiving a digital storage device containing a list of intelligence officials,” according to the BBC. Whelan has maintained his innocence.

The State Department has said publicly for months that both Whelan and Griner were being “wrongfully detained” by the Russian government.

President Joe Biden told reporters at the White House that his administration will continue to fight for Whelan’s release.

Griner, who won the WNBA championship in 2014 with the Phoenix Mercury, will return to the team that drafted her number one overall in 2013 and look to reintegrate with their pair of dynamic guards: 40-year-old, 10-time All-WNBA first team Diana Taurasi and six-time All-Star Skylar Diggins-Smith.

Griner’s absence was a key factor in the Mercury’s first-round playoff exit this year, as they were second-to-last in both rebounds and field goals made, a significant dip from seventh in field goals made and third in rebounds the season prior. The coach shuffled centers in and out of the rotation to try and fill the void, but without a powerhouse to anchor them down low, the Mercury could not make a deep run.

The 6’9”, 205-pound center has one year left on her three-year, $664,544 contract before she hits free agency in 2023. The 32-year-old still has plenty of time to add another MVP award and more championships to her already impressive resume, which includes one WNBA championship, two Defensive Player of the Year awards, two Olympic gold medals and two FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cups.

For Griner and her family, the focus will be on spending the holidays together and returning to normalcy now that she’s home.

“Today, my family is whole,” Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife, told reporters at the White House.