After long detainment in Russia, Brittney Griner must readjust to life back home

A message shown Thursday on a scoreboard in Portland, Ore., welcomes the news of the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner. (Steve Dykes/The Associated Press - image credit)
A message shown Thursday on a scoreboard in Portland, Ore., welcomes the news of the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner. (Steve Dykes/The Associated Press - image credit)

Brittney Griner has begun stepping back into a life that was put on hold by more than nine months of Russian imprisonment, but the journey that lies ahead may bring its own challenges.

The WNBA star is back on U.S. soil after Washington agreed to release a convicted arms dealer and send him back to Russia to make that happen. Griner had been held since Feb. 17, days before Russia invaded Ukraine, after vape cartridges containing cannabis oil were found in her luggage.

Her first stop has been to a U.S. Army medical hospital in Texas. U.S. officials say she'll be offered specialized medical services and counselling.

"The U.S. government is focused on ensuring that Brittney Griner and her family's well-being are prioritized and that all assistance available be offered in an appropriate manner," said Lisa Lawrence, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Defence, in an email.

Griner had been facing a nine-year sentence in a Russian penal colony after her conviction for drug possession and smuggling.

What comes next for Griner will be a process of readjusting — to life in the U.S., to life in the spotlight, to a life she used to live.

An individual journey

Ruth Lanius, a professor of psychiatry at Western University in London, Ont., said this kind of scenario involves a person having to get used to a very different situation to what they have just been living through.

"That's not always easy and it takes time," said Lanius, speaking about the general context of such a process, which could range from weeks to months, or even longer.

Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/Getty Images
Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/Getty Images

In Griner's case, this would involve moving from a very restricted life in captivity to being free again.

Lanius said a person trying to re-adapt in this way needs social support, with the people in their life working to understand what they need and how much engagement they can handle.

To date, Griner has received strong support from her loved ones, from her fellow WNBA players, the White House and also the public.

"There has not been a day over the past ten months where we all haven't had Brittney Griner on our minds and in our hearts and that has now turned into a collective wave of joy," WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement Thursday, when news broke that Griner was free.

Lanius said it's possible public support could be a positive factor in this type of context.

The athlete factor

Athletes are known for their resilience and grit.

These are qualities that could prove beneficial for someone like Griner, said Frances Flint, an associate professor emerita of kinesiology and health science at Toronto's York University.

WATCH | Brittney Griner's journey home:

But there will inevitably be moments ahead when she'll have "to draw on that resilience" to deal with depression she may face, said Flint.

"There's bound to be a rebound," she said.

Catherine Sabiston, a professor in the faculty of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto, said the months Griner spent in detention will undoubtedly have been difficult.

"Drawing on theories of post-traumatic growth, this type of event is likely to have challenged her greatly, and there has been a lot of time in isolation to ruminate and think about what's next," she said via email.

The star athlete will continue to face "stressors and distress ... and yet all of these conditions may foster growth."

Hope she 'laces them up'

Griner has not announced her plans, though some of her supporters hope to see her playing again.

"There's so much love that the basketball community has for Brittney that they want to show her," said Dawn Staley, who coached the gold medal-winning 2020 Olympics squad Griner played for.

Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images
Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

"We want her back in her happy place. So I hope that Brittney laces them up. But if she does not, I truly would understand why. We're still going to support it. We're still going to lift her up."

The University of Toronto's Sabiston said Griner, a gay Black athlete, was "a trailblazer" well before she was detained in Russia and experienced in dealing with obstacles.

"She has faced challenges specific to intersections of gender, race, and sexual orientation," she said.

"Facing challenges has been a part of her sport career," she said. "It will certainly help manage this major stressor of facing the return to sport."

Others still await repatriation

The swap that brought Griner home failed to free Paul Whelan — another prisoner the U.S. hoped to include in the deal.

WATCH | No relief yet for Paul Whelan's family: 

The U.S. government continues to push for his release. Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday said that further prisoner swaps between the two countries are possible.

Whelan's story isn't going away — nor is it going unnoticed by Griner's supporters.

"Our hope is that Paul Whelan and every wrongfully detained American will be returned home safely and as soon as possible," said Engelbert, the WNBA commissioner, in the statement welcoming Griner's release.