Brittney Griner's freedom from Russian custody brings happy ending to long, terrifying ordeal

At the end of almost two minutes of acknowledgements, thank yous and promises to continue advocating, Cherelle Griner touched her hand to her chest and said, "I'm gonna smile right now."

That smile was wide and bright, one of those that pushes your cheeks up so high they squinch your eyes.

In that moment, her joy and her relief were so palpable they came through the screen, warm and so welcomed.

Cherelle's wife, WNBA star Brittney Griner, was headed home to the United States after 294 days as a political prisoner in Russia, the last several weeks of which were spent at a penal colony over 200 miles outside Moscow.

For so many, Thursday was a day to rejoice. To celebrate. To exhale.

BG is free.

Cherelle Griner, wife of WNBA star Brittney Griner, speaks after President Joe Biden announced Brittney Griner's release in a prisoner swap with Russia on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, at the White House. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Cherelle Griner, wife of WNBA star Brittney Griner, speaks after President Joe Biden announced Brittney Griner's release in a prisoner swap with Russia on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, at the White House. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Her fearless sisters in the WNBA, her brothers in the NBA, former President Barack Obama, her friend and Olympic coach Dawn Staley — in many corners of social media there was joy at the news. It was unexpected for many; Griner was in Vladimir Putin's Russia and being patient when someone you love is imprisoned in a country that has challenging relations with the United States is nearly impossible.

In the early weeks, there was a belief that not saying anything in the media was the right path. Then, once the United States classified her as "wrongfully detained," keeping her name in headlines was the way to go. There were reports trying to explain why Griner's trial played out the way it did, that by pleading guilty and being sentenced then going through the appeals process, as scripted as the result was, would help clear the path toward negotiating her release. It was all illuminating, though not really comforting, especially for those who had no real understanding of how these situations go.

Despite all of that, when Griner was given an excessive-even-by-Russian-standards nine-year sentence for possessing vape cartridges with less than a gram of cannabis oil — a standard paper clip weighs more — and was transported to a remote prison camp in early November, it was impossible to know if she'd serve the entire nine-year sentence there. There was a feeling of helplessness.

But on Thursday just after 8 a.m. on the East Coast came the first report that she'd been freed. A few minutes later, it was made official by President Biden's Twitter account: "Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home."

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Griner was wrongfully detained for nearly 10 months, and we may never know the full extent of what she endured while there. A 6-foot-9, Black, queer woman was held captive in a country that recently expanded anti-LGTBQ laws and has a judicial system where virtually every defendant is found guilty, regardless of intent, prior history or evidence.

It was terrifying.

Thinking often about how scared and alone Griner must have felt, the desperation her wife, family and so many who love her must have felt, was heartbreaking.

Knowing the American government had brokered a deal to bring her home and seeing Cherelle Griner and President Biden on Thursday morning was everything but.

We don't know yet what Griner's physical and mental state are. She has been through an incomprehensible ordeal, and will need time to heal and recover. But the best news is that process can start now.

The joy has certainly been tempered by the sobering fact that Russia was not willing to send retired U.S. Marine Paul Whelan back to the U.S. with Griner in exchange for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout, which was reportedly the trade the Biden administration was trying to make. But as Whelan's family acknowledged, once it became clear that the only deal to which Russia would agree was Griner for Bout or no deal at all, the administration made the right call: One American home was certainly better than none.

It has also been tempered by the torrent of racist and bigoted hatred for Griner by those whose tweets indicate they'd rather she'd been left in that penal colony if Whelan wasn't going to be freed as well. Or just left there, period.

That is to analyze another day, when the spirit is willing to deal with that anger.

But for now, there is only space for joy.

For the strength and persistence of WNBA players, who have stepped up time and again, though no more fiercely than for their own. They would not let anyone forget their beloved teammate and friend, and did everything they could to help get her home.

For the love shown to Brittney and Cherelle and their families during a fraught and uncertain time.

For the way so many kept Griner's name uplifted, from the WNBA naming her an honorary starter for the 2022 All-Star Game, to Megan Rapinoe having "BG" sewn onto the lapel of the suit she wore to accept her Presidential Medal of Freedom, to Steph Curry using his moment at the Golden State Warriors' ring ceremony to say BG's name, to Staley and others tweeting about her plight daily.

The memory of Cherelle Griner's smile at a White House lectern Thursday morning is everything. The joy is real. The relief is substantial.

BG is free.

A "We Are BG 42" mural supporting Brittney Griner is seen at the Footprint Center in Phoenix. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)