WNBA star Brittney Griner is back on U.S. soil, landing at San Antonio’s Kelly Field Air Force Base around 4:30 a.m. CT Friday after nearly 10 months in Russian detention.
Griner was released in a high-profile prisoner exchange for notorious convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
“So happy to have Brittney back on U.S. soil,” the U.S. special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Roger D. Carstens, who traveled on the plane with Griner, tweeted Friday. “Welcome home B.G.!”
Griner and three other people were seen getting off the Gulfstream G550 corporate jet, which landed at Kelly Field after a flight from the United Arab Emirates, where the prisoner exchange took place. The flight made a stop in Manchester in the United Kingdom.
Her wife, Cherelle Griner, and her parents met the two-time Olympic gold medalist and Baylor University All-American at a medical facility in San Antonio, where she is expected to undergo an extensive physical and mental medical evaluation, KENS5 reported.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told NBC that Griner appeared to be in good spirits and health after her arrival.
Griner is a Texas native; her family lives in the Houston suburbs. The City Hall in Houston was lit up in red, white, and blue in her honor Thursday night, said Mayor Sylvester Turner.
State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said the U.S. would provide Griner with whatever she requested.
“She may seek the assistance that the U.S. is going to provide, and we are going to make all of that available to her. How long she takes advantage of that assistance, that is a question for Brittney Griner, it is a question for Cherelle. But it is going to be an ongoing conversation we have with them,” Price said on MSNBC.
Following her medical evaluation, Griner will return to her Arizona home, where she plays for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.
Griner also played pro basketball in Russia during the WNBA off-season. She was arrested at a Moscow airport in February as she arrived to play for her Russian team after authorities determined she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil.
Her arrest came just one week before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine.
Griner pleaded guilty to drug smuggling charges though she claimed she accidentally packed the cannabis oil in her luggage. Her defense team presented a statement from her U.S. doctor that she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.
She was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in a forced labor camp in Mordovia, about 300 miles southeast of Moscow.
Before her conviction, the U.S. State Department declared Griner “wrongfully detained” — a designation Russia rejected.
The exchange of Griner for Bout had been rumored since May. Bout, dubbed the “Merchant of Death,” had served less than half of a 25-year sentence for conspiring to kill American nationals and selling tens of thousands of dollars worth of weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) narco-terror group.
Not included in the deal was Paul Whelan — an ex-marine detained in Russia for nearly four years on espionage charges.
Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, told NBC that freeing Whelan and Griner was not an option in the U.S. negotiations with Russia, saying, “this wasn’t a choice between Paul or Brittney.”
“The only deal we could secure was Brittney for Mr. Bout. That was the only deal available to us,” Kirby said. “So, the choice really was either we bring Brittney home and get one American released or we get none. And obviously we chose to bring Brittney home.”
He said the U.S. will continue fighting for Whelan’s release and that giving up Bout “doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be options going forward.”
Whelan’s family supported the deal to bring Griner home, calling it “the right decision” rather than waiting for another opportunity that may never have come.
Griner’s family said they would continue to support the release of Whelan and other Americans wrongfully detained abroad.
“We sincerely thank you all for the kind words, thoughts and prayers — including Paul and the Whelan family who have been generous with their support for Brittney and our family during what we know is a heartbreaking time,” Griner’s family said in a statement to ESPN. “We pray for Paul and for all wrongfully detained Americans’ swift and safe return.”