U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner has been released in a prisoner swap with Russia in exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout and was heading home on Thursday, ending what Mr. Biden called months of “hell” for her and her wife.
Joe Biden shared the video of the emotional moment when he broke the news of Brittney Griner’s touchdown on the US soil, telling his wife that “she is on the ground”.
In the one-for-one swap, the US had reportedly been negotiating with Moscow for weeks to send arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for the 32-year-old American basketball player.
Cherelle Griner, the wife of a basketball star who was fighting for her return, was personally informed by Mr. Biden, and the two hugged as she reacted in disbelief.
“She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” said Mr. Biden in a tweet confirming her release, adding later during an address that she was in “good spirits”.
Meanwhile, jailed US Marine Paul Whelan says he is “greatly disappointed” not to have been included in the prisoner exchange, telling CNN in a new interview.
Who is Brittney Griner
Brittney Griner, 32, is one of the best-known sportswomen in America. During the US basketball season the double Olympic champion is a star centre for Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA.
The future WNBA star was born on 18 October 1990 to Raymond and Sandra Griner in Texas. Her father was a veteran of the Vietnam War, where he served two tours of duty as a US Marine, and he later became a police officer in Houston.
She grew up in a strict household and later wrote in her autobiography that her father had “so many damn rules” designed to keep her safe and “on the right path”.
The star – who is 6ft 9in (2.05 metres) tall – recalled being bullied for her height and tomboyish appearance as a child.
She wrote in her autobiography that she spent much of her time “wishing away so much of what would eventually make me successful at basketball: my size, strength, and tenacity”.
Despite wishing to be “normal”, her unique talent on the basketball court was quickly noticed by coaches at the Nimitz High School in Houston.
While playing for the school’s team, the Nimitz Cougars, her ability to dunk a basketball attracted massive attention.
During her junior season, a video compilation of her dunks racked up 6.6 million views on YouTube and lead to a meeting with LA Lakers legend Shaquille O’Neal.
After leading the Nimitz Cougars to a state championship game in her senior year – during which she dunked the ball a record 52 times in 32 games – she was named to the illustrious Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) All-American team, and scored 20 points in its showpiece game.
Griner came out as gay at the age of 22, at the start of her promising career, becoming one of the most prominent LGBT athletes in the world.
Coming out in an interview with Sports Illustrated, she told the publication that the decision “wasn’t hard at all”.
“I’ve always been open about who I am and my sexuality,” she said. “If I can show that I’m out and I’m fine, then hopefully the younger generation will feel the same way.”
In 2013, Griner became the first openly gay player to be endorsed by Nike in a multi-million dollar deal.
In 2019, she married her partner Cherelle Watson after a heavily publicised divorce from her ex-wife and fellow WNBA player Glory Johnson.
After a successful college career with Baylor University, Griner was drafted as the number one pick in the 2013 WNBA draft by the Arizona-based Phoenix Mercury.
The star went on to become one of the WNBA’s most dominant players in history, widely considered the best offensive player in the league – and her ability to dunk remains unmatched.
She has won a WNBA championship, eight WNBA All-Star awards, four EuroLeague titles and two Olympic gold medals.
Despite all this, Griner had a second job, and that was why she flew to Russia – to play for EuroLeague team UMMC Ekaterinburg, who she has played for during the WNBA off-season since 2014.
Roughly half of WNBA players compete overseas in the off-season. For most, it’s a way to boost their income: WNBA players receive roughly five times more in Russia than they do in the US.
“If she were Steph Curry or LeBron James, she wouldn’t be over there at all because she’d be making enough money,” Ms. Spruill said.
Griner’s counterparts in the men’s league make more than 200 times the maximum WNBA salary.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, the EuroLeague suspended all Russian teams, and US and WNBA officials began calling players out of the country.
But it was too late for Griner, who is believed to have entered Russia one week earlier, on 17 February, though the timing remains unclear.
Initially, US authorities and representatives for Griner were largely silent, other than to say they were working to bring her home.
In early May, however, the State Department said it considered Griner to be “wrongfully” detained, and a lengthy campaign to secure her release began.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, posted on Instagram in April about the painful wait.
“People say ‘stay busy.’ Yet, there’s not a task in this world that could keep any of us from worrying about you. My heart, our hearts, are all skipping beats everyday that goes by,” she wrote.
“There are no words to express this pain. I’m hurting, we’re hurting”.
On Thursday, following Griner’s release, her wife embraced US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office.
“I’m just standing here overwhelmed with emotions,” she said.
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