WNBA star Brittney Griner arrived back in the United States early Friday after being freed from Russian custody, bringing a nearly yearlong ordeal to an end.
Griner could be seen climbing down the steps of a plane shortly after it arrived at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas before 6 a.m. EST.
“So happy to have Brittney back on U.S. soil. Welcome home BG!” Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens tweeted shortly after.
Griner, 32, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and center for the Phoenix Mercury, was freed Thursday in a prisoner exchange between the U.S. and Russia. A senior administration official said that Griner would be flown to a San Antonio medical facility.
The U.S. freed Viktor Bout, an arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death,” who was serving a 25-year prison sentence handed down by a judge in 2012.
In earlier video, Russian media had showed Griner crossing paths with Bout after walking off a Russian plane in Abu Dhabi, where she was met by a U.S. 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 relatives waiting with flowers embraced him.
Griner was sentenced in August in a Russian court to nine years in prison for allegedly possessing vape cartridges of cannabis oil in her luggage, which she said was unintentional. She was being held at a penal colony.
U.S. officials said the athlete had been wrongfully detained by Russia. President Joe Biden, who said he approved the deal that saw Griner freed, said Thursday that she had been “held under intolerable circumstances.”
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 had faced significant pressure to help bring home Griner, with her teammates, family and friends, as well as a number of U.S. celebrities, 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 what we know is a heartbreaking time,” the family said. “We pray for Paul and for the swift and safe return of all wrongfully-detained Americans.”
The family asked for privacy “as we embark on this road to healing.”
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, on Thursday thanked Biden and his administration, and said she was “overwhelmed with emotions,” but that her thoughts were also with the family of Paul Whelan, an American still detained in Russia.
Whelan’s family said they had been told by the Biden administration in advance that he would not be part of the prisoner swap Thursday that freed Griner.
Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, said in a statement that while he can “literally only imagine the joy she will have, being reunited with her loved ones, and in time for the holidays,” the inability to also bring Whelan home is difficult for the family to process.
Chantal Da Silva and Associated Press contributed.