By Abby Phillip and Nouran Salahieh, CNN
Freed from a Russian penal colony and back on American soil, WNBA star Brittney Griner got her first taste of a return to normal life over the weekend at a Texas military facility. But though she’s home, Griner is heartbroken that Paul Whelan is still detained, her agent said.
The Olympic gold medalist arrived Friday at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio and is now staying with her wife, Cherelle Griner, in a residential environment on the base — one her agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, decorated with a Christmas tree.
Griner, 32, is “upbeat, thankful and hopeful,” Colas told CNN, after returning to the states from what US officials deemed wrongful detention in Russia.
Still, she’s thinking of Whelan, who remains behind bars in Russia, her agent said.
“She is thinking about his family and talked about her intention to call them as soon as she gets home,” Colas told CNN’s Anderson Cooper Tuesday. “She’s really committed to telling this story and making sure that this population of wrongfully detained Americans, that people know their names.”
For Griner — who spent nearly 10 months in Russian custody — “normal” has meant indulging in her favorites, including a Dr Pepper soda, the first drink she had in the airplane hangar after landing.
Griner’s relatives also have visited her off and on for hours, bringing San Antonio barbecue for her to enjoy.
The athlete has been eating far more nutritious food and supplements compared with her time in detention, Colas said. “Her energy level was really high,” she added.
Griner also got a haircut to clean up her “Russian fade,” as her friends and family jokingly call it, Colas said. Griner’s long, signature dreadlocks were cut while in captivity as she continuously battled the flu because her wet hair kept freezing, Colas said.
At the Texas military base, Griner hit the basketball court for the first time since she was imprisoned: Her first move was a dunk. Months ago, in pre-trial detention in Russia, Griner was offered a basketball and a hoop, but she declined to play, Colas said.
“I think it’s fair to say that her picking up a ball voluntarily and the first thing being a dunk … it was really encouraging,” Colas said. “She was really excited.”
Griner seems to be in good physical health, but whether she returns to the WNBA in the spring season will be up to her, according to Colas.
“Is she going to be ready? We’ll see,” Colas said.
Griner is getting psychological support
Griner arrived at the San Antonio medical facility for a routine evaluation after her release Thursday as part of a prisoner exchange between the US and Russia for notorious convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Concerns had grown that Griner was being used as a political pawn amid Russia’s war on Ukraine after she was arrested on drug charges in February at an airport in Russia, where she plays basketball in the WNBA off-season, then later sentenced to nine years in prison.
Now, Griner’s focus will be on recuperating, including getting physical and psychological support from the government to help with her reintegration.
“She’s had a lot of psychological support,” Colas said. “The resources are very robust. It’s very supportive and very BG-centered. It’s about her developing agency.”
That care is heavily focused on helping formerly captive people regain a sense of control over their lives after lengthy detentions. Griner opted into the Department of Defense’s post-isolation program, which other wrongfully detained Americans, including Trevor Reed, have participated in, Colas said; Reed is former Marine released in April after three years of wrongful detention in Russia.
It’s not clear how long Griner and her wife will stay in San Antonio, but the decision is hers, Colas said.
But what’s become clear is that “normal” will always look different after the ordeal Griner went through. For security reasons, for instance, the Griners have already begun the process of finding a new home, Colas said.
Griner wants to help another detained American
Though it remains unknown if fans will see Griner back on the basketball court in May, one thing is certain, Colas said: Griner is eager to use her power and influence to help others — especially Paul Whelan, another American still imprisoned in Russia.
“It was one of the first things she asked me about,” Colas said. “She’s very, very concerned about that. And will be sending a message to Paul.”
Whelan already sent a message through US representatives who spoke with him in recent days: “Please tell Brittney that Paul said he’s happy she’s home,” he told her, according to Colas.
“She is absolutely thinking about the future,” Colas said. “She’s already talking about the position that she’s now in to help other people come home.”
Whelan — a US, Irish, British and Canadian citizen — is imprisoned in a Russian penal colony after he was arrested in December 2018 on espionage charges, which he has denied. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison. He, like Griner, has been declared wrongfully detained by US officials.
The US tried to persuade Russia to swap both Griner and Whelan for arms dealer Bout, but Russian officials would not budge on the matter, with Russia saying both of the Americans’ cases were handled differently based on the charges each of them faced.
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CNN’s Amanda Musa, Holly Yan, Kylie Atwood, Jennifer Hansler, Wayne Sterling and Matias Grez contributed to this report.