WNBA star Brittney Griner returned to the United States early Friday after being released from Russian custody, ending a nearly year-long ordeal.
Griner was seen descending a plane’s stairs shortly after it arrived at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas before 6 a.m. EST.
“So happy to have Brittney back on American soil. Welcome home BG!” Presidential Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens tweeted shortly after.
Griner, 32, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and center for the Phoenix Mercury, was released Thursday in a prisoner exchange between the US and Russia. A senior official said Griner would be flown to a medical facility in San Antonio.
The US has released Viktor Bout, an arms dealer known as the “Dealer of Death”, who was serving a 25-year prison sentence handed down by a judge in 2012.
In previous videos, Russian media had shown Griner crossing Bout after she walked off a Russian plane in Abu Dhabi, where she was met by a US official during the exchange. Russian representatives greeted Bout with a hug and the arms dealer was later shown by Russian media walking off a plane in Moscow, where waiting relatives hugged him with flowers.
Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison by a Russian court in August for allegedly carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage, which she says was unintentional. She was held in a penal colony.
US officials said the athlete was wrongfully detained by Russia. President Joe Biden, who said he approved the deal that would see Griner released, said on Thursday she had been held “under intolerable conditions.”
The prisoner swap is one of the most high-profile to have taken place between Moscow and Washington since the Cold War.
The Biden administration was under intense pressure to help Griner home, along with her teammates, family and friends, as well as a number of American celebrities, who were lobbying for her return.
In a written statement Thursday night, the Griner family thanked Biden, his administration and others for their efforts.
“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 a heartbreaking time,” the family said. “We pray for Paul and for the speedy and safe return of all Americans wrongfully detained.”
The family asked for privacy “as we go down this road to healing”.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, thanked Biden and his administration on Thursday, saying she was “overwhelmed with emotion” but that her thoughts were also with the family of Paul Whelan, an American still trapped in Russia.
Whelan’s family said they were told in advance by the Biden administration that he would not be part of the prisoner swap that released Griner on Thursday.
Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, said in a statement that while he can “literally only imagine how much joy she will have, reunited with her loved ones, and in time for the holidays,” the inability to bring Whelan home as well is difficult for the family to handle.
Chantal da Silva and Associated Press contributed.