Brittney Griner on what she endured. : Consider This from NPR Brittney Griner didn't know the flight she was taking to Moscow in February 2022 would upend her life. But even before she left for the airport, Griner felt something was off.

It was a premonition that foreshadowed a waking nightmare.

She had accidentally left two vape cartridges with traces of cannabis oil in her luggage. What followed was nearly 10 months of struggle in a cell, and diplomatic efforts from the U.S. to get her home.

Griner reflects on the experience in her new memoir, 'Coming Home' and discusses it in depth with NPR's Juana Summers.

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Brittney Griner shares her experience behind bars in Russia

Brittney Griner shares her experience behind bars in Russia

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Brittney Griner warms up before a game against the New York Liberty at Barclays Center on July 05, 2023. Dustin Satloff/Getty Images hide caption

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Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

Brittney Griner warms up before a game against the New York Liberty at Barclays Center on July 05, 2023.

Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

Brittney Griner didn't know that the flight she was taking to Moscow in February 2022 would upend her life. But even before she left for the airport, Griner felt something was off.

"I felt like the universe was kind of telling me like, Hey, don't go from waking up late, [I] couldn't find my phone."

It was a premonition that foreshadowed a waking nightmare for Griner.

After the WNBA star arrived in Moscow to play the off season for a Russian EuroLeague team – a job that paid her many times more than her WNBA salary, Griner realized she had accidentally left two vape cartridges with traces of cannabis oil in her luggage.

Griner says a doctor issued her a medical marijuana card to deal with chronic pain years ago, but marijuana is illegal in Russia. Griner describes her realization as an extremely formative moment:

"Oh, my God. It's kind of one of those moments like people talk about before, like a crash or something, and you see, your life flash, or it's just like the breath is completely took out of your lungs. That's the exact feeling, like, oh, no elevator. And it just fell. And I literally started contemplating everything that could go wrong."

Things did go wrong. Griner was quickly apprehended and detained by Russian authorities for nearly 10 months.


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Harrowing conditions

Being detained just a week before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Griner's arrest came at a time when the relationship between Russia and the U.S. was getting progressively more hostile.

And so Griner became, in her words, "a chess piece in a showdown between superpowers."

While a geopolitical battle played out, Griner was subjected to brutal conditions. She describes filthy cells with frigid temperatures, unclean drinking water and no necessities. The conditions were so extreme she contemplated ending her own life.

"I literally had two shirts, sweats and a hoodie and my shoes on my feet. And I had to take a shirt and rip it up into different pieces to use to clean myself and wash off with. It was the most degrading and just flat out dirty as I've ever felt in my whole entire life.

I did not feel like a human at that point. And just everything was setting in on the unknown. I didn't know anything at that point, like it was very early on, and I just sat there and thought about ending it, and just came out with a plan on how I could do it."

After a few days, she realized the toll it would take on her family and her wife, and didn't want to add anymore stress on their lives.

Adjusting to life at home

After nearly a year away, the U.S. was able to negotiate Griner's release, in a prisoner swap for a convicted Russian arms dealer. She returned home in December 2022.

And while reuniting with her wife and loved ones was an experience she described as "breathtaking," Griner has struggled to adjust to life back home. Griner says she carries the guilt of her mistake, knowing there are other American detainees in Russia, like former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who are enduring conditions similar to what she experienced.

"Everybody kept telling me to give myself grace. And that was the hardest thing to do, because at the end of the day, my dad taught me you just take ownership for things that you've done, like willingly and unwillingly. So I had to take responsibility and it was just really hard. I think at times I still feel like I haven't forgiven myself, honestly, because I'm just like I deprived my family of time with me."

Griner reflects on this and more in her new memoir, Coming Home which she discussed in depth with All Things Considered host Juana Summers. Listen to the full interview by tapping the play button at the top of the page.

This episode was produced by Elena Burnett and Connor Donevan, with audio engineering by Phil Edfors. It was edited by Ashley Brown and Courtney Dorning. Our executive producer is Sami Yenigun.