After 10 grueling months apart, Brittney Griner and her wife Cherelle Griner are finally back together. The former Phoenix Mercury star was behind bars in Russia serving a nine-year prison sentence on drug smuggling and possession charges. Earlier this month, Russian officials finally released Griner to the U.S. in a prisoner swap for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.
During an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, Cherelle spoke about the challenges she faced as she patiently awaited her wife’s return.
“I was hopeless a lot of days,” Cherelle told the outlet. “You try and stay grounded, but I’m human. Still, I would never completely give up hope on my wife’s life.”
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Just after Thanksgiving, Russia traded Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Once she touched down on U.S. soil, the lovebirds had an emotional embrace as they reunited.
“We were both just instantly crying. I was standing there full of tears and someone ran over and handed me a handkerchief. I definitely needed it. I couldn’t stop touching her face. 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.”
Now that they are back together, the Griners are focused on creating a new normal.
“We’re mindful of the fact you can’t go backwards. You say, ‘Oh, let’s get back to normal. We do understand that the normal we are referring to was what we were doing before February 17. We reminisce about certain things in the past. Still, we’re trying to make sure we’re not going backwards. For the most part, we’re focused on what’s in store next for the both of us.”
While Griner was detained, her wife graduated from law school. While she was away, Cherelle said her wife’s situation inspired her to dedicate her career to advocating for wrongfully detained prisoners.
I realized how voiceless the issue is. I was 29 when Brittney was detained, and that’s when I found out that it was even a real thing. That shouldn’t be the case. I should have known about that before, which means we need more voices around this issue. My story came full circle. But there’s so many other Americans, their story is not full circle. And so it’s changed everything about what I thought I was going to do career-wise.
As for Brittney Griner’s career, she has been medically cleared and has been working out with her Phoenix Mercury teammates.
In a statement posted to her Instagram earlier this month, Griner told fans that she did plan to return to the court in the near future, but a date has yet to be revealed.
“There’s no timeline on her return at this point. She’s reintegrating into a world that has changed for her now,” her agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas said at the time. “From a pure security standpoint, she’s not going to be able to move in the world the way she did. It’s not a fate that she asked for, but I think she’s going to try to utilize her fame for good.”
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