Brittney Griner felt ‘less than human’ while being detained in Russia, she tells ABC in interview

Surveying her new surroundings in a Russian penal colony, the enormity of her prison confinement suddenly dawned on Brittney Griner, the WNBA star has told ABC.

Speaking to ABC anchor Robin Roberts, the 33-year-old Griner said it was at that moment she “felt just less than a human.”

The two-time Olympic gold-medalist spent nearly 300 days in Russian custody after being detained in February 2022 and sentenced to nine years in prison under drug-smuggling charges after authorities in the country found cannabis oil in her luggage.

“There was a huge knife sitting on the table, and I was just like: ‘Now, this is going to be a ride,’” said Griner.

“You got to do what you got to do to survive. The mattress had a huge blood stain on it. I had no soap, no toilet paper,” added Griner, who the US State Department deemed wrongfully detained and was released last December in a prisoner swap that involved Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

‘My life is over right here’

Griner had for years played on a Russian women’s basketball team during the WNBA off-season and was detained in a Moscow airport as she traveled to rejoin UMMC Ekaterinburg.

Russian prosecutors accused her of trying to smuggle less than 1 gram of cannabis oil in her luggage contained in vape cartridges.

In a portion of the interview shown on ABC on Tuesday, Griner said she “felt the cartridge” when asked to reach into her bag by airport staff.

“My life is over right here,” recalls Griner of her initial reaction to that moment, while also denying that she has ever taken cannabis into Russia.

Griner was eventually sentenced to nine years in prison for drug smuggling.

“I was just so scared about everything. There was so much unknown,” she told ABC.

When she was asked if there were times when she lost faith, Griner said: “Yeah. I didn’t think I could get through what I needed to get through.

Griner, who is entering her 11th WNBA season after re-signing with the Phoenix Mercury, is writing a memoir about her experience of detention.

“By writing this book, I also hope to raise awareness surrounding other Americans wrongfully detained abroad,” Griner said.

Griner and her wife Cherelle are expecting their first child, the couple announced earlier this month. She is also in contention for a spot on the US Olympic team for this summer’s Paris Olympic Games.

Her detainment spotlighted the salary caps WNBA players face in the US – which has pushed athletes to go overseas to earn more during their off-seasons.

In 2023, Griner averaged 17.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists, while ranking second in the league in field goal percentage (56.0%) and third in blocks (1.6). She is third on the WNBA’s all-time blocks list.

Griner is a nine-time WNBA All-Star, winning a WNBA title in 2014.

A longer version of Griner’s interview is set to air on May 1 at 10 p.m. ET on ABC’s 20/20.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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