Miguel Negron/U.S. Army West Brittney Griner and wife Cherelle hug each other as soon as the WNBA star returned to the U.S.
For 294 days, Cherelle Griner felt as if she were holding her breath, always in a perpetual state of waiting, clinging to hope even when hope seemed pointless. Counting the days — and sometimes the hours and minutes — began early this year for Cherelle, on Feb. 17, when her wife of three years Brittney Griner, 32, a WNBA All-Star, was taken into custody by Russian officials for carrying a vape pen containing hash oil.
The Phoenix Mercury center had been playing for the Russian Premier League basketball team UMMC Ekaterinburg during her offseason when she was stopped at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, charged with smuggling illegal drugs, tried and then sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison colony. “It was almost as if somebody just punched you in the stomach and you inhaled,” says Cherelle of the shock. “You never get to breathe out.”
In those 10 months, Cherelle, 30, finished law school, pleaded publicly and in private prayers for her wife’s release, tried to sleep at night and then got up in the morning to start all over again, never knowing Brittney’s fate.
“I was hopeless a lot of days,” Cherelle admits. “You try and stay grounded, but I’m human. Still, I would never completely give up hope on my wife’s life.”
It wasn’t until Cherelle entered the Oval Office on Dec. 8 and heard — along with the rest of the world — President Biden announce that Brittney had boarded a plane out of Russia and was heading home to the U.S. that she felt the pressure begin to lift. “I had thought about that moment a thousand times, and I thought I would be full of tears,” she says. “But I was overwhelmingly happy. It was the first time I was able to finally exhale, and I’m like, ‘Oh, thank God, this is such a great day.'”
Standing on the tarmac inside a bunker in San Antonio hours later, Cherelle saw Brittney’s face from the window of the plane and their eyes met. “We were both just instantly crying,” she says. “I was standing there full of tears and someone ran over and handed me a handkerchief. I definitely needed it.”
Miguel Negron/U.S. Army West Brittney Griner returning home to the U.S. on Dec. 8, 2022
Medical personnel boarded the plane first, to quickly evaluate Brittney. “Those seconds couldn’t go by fast enough,” says Cherelle. When Brittney was allowed to disembark, the two fell into a tight embrace. “I couldn’t stop touching her face,” Cherelle says. “I was like, ‘Is this really you?’ It did not feel real. It was chilling — and warm. I was just holding on tight. I couldn’t let her go.”
Since returning to their shared home in Arizona — Brittney was cleared medically to leave Texas after two days of observation — the couple is settling in, though Cherelle admits their reunion hasn’t been the most restful.
“The first night, we didn’t sleep at all,” she says, laughing. “We just talked all night long and all morning. And it was so good to be able to do it without three weeks in between the conversation, because for 10 months we were passing letters. It was great to have that dialogue back and forth.”
Anton Novoderezhkin/TASS/ZUMA Brittney Griner during her detention in Russia
For Cherelle, making up for lost time at the expense of sleep is an easy choice — especially when she considers the nightmare that kept her awake previously. Between the agony of her wife’s detainment and the logistics of international communication, she hasn’t had a peaceful night’s rest since that February day.
“I had all my freedom,” she says. “I had my bed. But when you have your family overseas in a situation like that, time zones play a factor. Every night, that’s the only time I could talk to her attorneys and I could handle things, anything related to Russia. And so I just hadn’t slept.”
As Brittney and Cherelle rebuild their lives together, they realize that part of reconnecting is learning more about the people they’ve become while they were apart.
“It’s unfortunate that those 10 months happened without us being able to be side-by-side,” Cherelle says. “But it happened, and we’re embracing the fact that we now get to learn each other’s story through that time. So we’re taking it slow. We are not doing it all at once. But we are honoring the fact that I went through something that was really hard and difficult without BG’s awareness, and vice versa. Day by day, we’re just feeding a little bit to the soul and understanding each other’s journey so we can actually start walking together.”
It’s a jumble of emotions that Cherelle is still unpacking. “On one hand, I’m doing amazing,” she explains. “My family’s whole, I have my person, and so I feel the most supported and safe and secure as I’ve ever felt in life. But it’s very overwhelming. We’re plus-13 days in from BG being away for almost 10 months. So it’s a new journey for us. And so we’re definitely trying to figure out how we blend back as one.”
‘We Need More Voices’
Cherelle, a former teacher, is “re-dreaming” her career. Now a lawyer, she says her wife’s detainment has given her a new professional goal: advocating for wrongfully detained Americans around the world.
“I realized how voiceless the issue is,” she says. “I was 29 when Brittney was detained, and that’s when I found out that it was even a real thing. That shouldn’t be the case. I should have known about that before, which means we need more voices around this issue. My story came full circle. But there’s so many other Americans, their story is not full circle. And so it’s changed everything about what I thought I was going to do career-wise.”
During Brittney’s first days back in the U.S., she went through Post Isolation Support Activities (PISA) at Joint Base San Antonio, which included medical and psychological evaluation and treatment. Though Brittney has released a statement and a handwritten letter on her official Instagram page expressing her gratitude for efforts that brought her back home and asking others to write letters to former Marine Paul Whelan — detained in Russia since 2018 for alleged espionage — she has yet to speak publicly about her ordeal. At present, she is doing well and medically cleared for normal activity, according to her representatives, and has been working out with her Phoenix Mercury coaches and teammates.
Miguel Negron/U.S. Army West Brittney Griner playing basketball for the first time since her release.
Meanwhile, the prisoner swap that made Brittney’s release possible — President Biden returning arms dealer Viktor Bout to Russia — has been criticized, as well as the fact that Whelan’s release was not simultaneously secured. The controversy isn’t lost on Cherelle, who says she is often reminded of Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high” speech, a phrase that gives her strength.
“You can’t ignore it,” Cherelle says. “But why would I allow something negative to take away from just how powerful and beautiful this moment is? We understand how patriotic President Biden’s move was to get BG home. We understand how important that is for future negotiations because we should all be willing as a country to bring people back one-by-one, making families whole.”
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The pain those families experience is deeply felt by Cherelle.
“Saying the names of Americans wrongfully detained plays a big piece in getting them home. We have to say their names, we have to write them, we have to keep pressure on our government to do hard things in negotiations.”
For now, Cherelle and Brittney are doing all the things they missed for so long, and soaking up the holiday traditions they didn’t know they’d ever be able to enjoy together again.
They’re ramping up for their annual chocolate chip and white macadamia nut cookie-baking contest. “BG’s actually turned out better than mine last year. I have to redeem myself,” says Cherelle, laughing.
And they’re trying to get through holiday movies without stopping to chat: “We typically watch one a night for the month of December. We haven’t even gotten to any of the new movies because we always start with The Grinch. We can’t get past it because we keep talking. That’s the starter, and we’re officially failing.”
They’re also putting the final touches on the Griner holiday drink: a homemade hot chocolate delicacy that will have both spiked and classic versions with “just the perfect spices” and ingredients.
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Mostly, they’re simply enjoying the moment.
“We’re mindful of the fact you can’t go backwards. You say, ‘Oh, let’s get back to normal,'” says Cherelle. “We do understand that the normal we are referring to was what we were doing before February 17. We reminisce about certain things in the past. Still, we’re trying to make sure we’re not going backwards. For the most part, we’re eyes focused on what’s in store next for the both of us.”
Never Forget: Bringing Detained Americans Home
The families of more than 60 U.S. citizens detained abroad are working nonstop to help raise awareness and efforts that could lead to their release.
“These people were taken because they’re American,” says Neda Sharghi, 50, whose brother Emad Shargi, 58, a Washington, D.C., businessman, was arrested in Iran in 2018 while visiting family — and sentenced to 10 years in prison for alleged espionage.
Courtesy Shargi Family Emad Shargi with (from left) daughter Ariana, wife Bahareh, and daughter Hannah
She works with Bring Our Families Home, a campaign that shares details of detainees, holds rallies and works with government officials on pushing forward negotiations.
“As Americans, we don’t leave one another behind,” she says. “We fight for them.”
Since Dec. 2018, David Whelan has been fighting to free his brother, Michigan executive and former Marine Paul Whelan, 52, who was in Moscow for a fellow Marine’s wedding when he was arrested on suspicion of spying. Sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in a maximum security prison colony, Paul is doing hard labor in a former WWII gulag.
David hoped Paul would return in December with Griner, but as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “this was not a choice of which American to bring home. The choice was one or none.” Says David, “It’s hard to keep up your hope year after year. It’s hard for Paul.”
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Paul Whelan behind bars in Russia
Texas Marine Trevor Reed, 31, arrested in Russia in 2019 for allegedly assaulting a police officer, was freed in a prisoner swap in April, brought about after efforts from his family and Bring Our Families Home spokesperson Jonathan Franks. “We want to get everyone we can home,” says Franks.
With K.C. Baker and reporting by Wendy Grossman Kantor.