In the span of 10 months—294 days to be precise—Cherelle Griner, the 30-year-old wife of WNBA all-star and recent Russian detainee Brittney Griner, graduated from law school, fielded calls from Russian attorneys in the middle of the night, and led a public campaign to bring BG safely home…all while holding her breath.
“It was almost as if somebody just punched you in the stomach and you inhaled,” Cherelle said of waiting for her wife’s return, in her first interview since Griner’s release with People. “You never get to breathe out.”
The pair, who have been married for three years, were separated on February 17, when Griner was detained by Russian officials for allegedly having trace amounts of cannabis oil in her luggage. Griner, a beloved figure in the WNBA and two-time Olympic gold medalist, was later sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison on drug smuggling charges and was transferred to an archaic penal colony in a remote location where she was set to serve out the rest of her sentence.
“I was hopeless a lot of days,” Cherelle told People. “You try and stay grounded, but I’m human. Still, I would never completely give up hope on my wife’s life.”
On December 8, President Joe Biden announced that the administration had brokered a deal with Russia for a prisoner swap: Brittney would return home in exchange for the convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Cherelle received that news from the Oval Office, alongside Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
“I had thought about that moment a thousand times, and I thought I would be full of tears,” she says of the moment she heard her wife was on a plane heading home, safe and sound. “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.’”
Cherelle waited for Brittney’s arrival from a tarmac inside a bunker in San Antonio, Texas. When the plane finally landed, Brittney had to wait to be evaluated by medical personnel before she could step onto American soil, and “those seconds couldn’t go by fast enough.” Cherelle said that she and her wife both began crying the second their eyes met through the plane window and when finally Brittney was allowed off the plane, the couple embraced at long last.
“I couldn’t stop touching her face,” Cherelle told People. “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.”
After two days of medical observation, BG was cleared to leave Texas and return home to Arizona. Though Brittney has not yet publicly spoken about her ordeal (aside from a few Instagram posts), she is reportedly “doing well,” according to her representatives, and is working out with her former Phoenix Mercury coaches and teammates. Brittney previously expressed that she was set on playing in the upcoming WNBA season.
“The first night, we didn’t sleep at all,” Cherelle said of the couple’s reunion. “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.”
Cherelle added that the pair are “taking it slow,” learning each other’s stories bit by bit: BG is “honoring the fact that I went through something that was really hard and difficult without BG’s awareness, and vice versa.” But throughout the grueling experience apart, both BG and Cherelle are now united by their passion for bringing fellow wrongfully detained Americans home. Cherelle is even “re-dreaming” her career to advocate for them, including former marine Paul Whelan, who remains in Russia.
“Saying the names of Americans wrongfully detained plays a big piece in getting them home,” she said. “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.”
Many, including conservative politicians, argued that Whelan was unfairly abandoned in Russia—much of which turned into thoughtless misogynoir aimed at Brittney. But U.S. officials have made clear that the only way to engage with Russia was through a one-for-one swap: They didn’t have any other choice.
“You can’t ignore it,” Cherelle said of the negative blowback. “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.”
In the meantime, Cherelle said she and Brittney have picked up a few annual holiday traditions, including a cookie-baking contest and perfecting the Griner holiday drink: spiked hot chocolate. But they both know this is just the beginning of a very long process, as BG reacclimatizes to her old life.
“On one hand, I’m doing amazing,” Cherelle said. “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.”