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Brittney Griner is still working on forgiving herself from guilt of detention

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Letting go of hope is sometimes the most optimistic thing you can do. That line opens a chapter in the new memoir out tomorrow from WNBA baller Brittney Griner. The book is called "Coming Home." But during her 10-month detention in Russia, she started doubting that she would have a chance to come home. A court had just sentenced her to nine years in a labor camp, and Griner wrote that she couldn't focus on hope, only survival.

Elsewhere on the show, she told me about the despair of waiting in deplorable, often dangerous conditions locked up on drug charges in 2022. You can hear that part of the conversation on the NPR app and at np.org.

But now, let's hear about how Brittney Griner regained her hope. A prisoner swap for a notorious Russian arms dealer secured her freedom. And following a massive campaign by her fans and loved ones, she was back on U.S. soil, reunited with her wife.

There is this moment that you write about in the book that I'm hoping is a story you can tell us. It's when you and Cherelle were reunited on the tarmac in San Antonio after you spent 293 days separated from one another.

BRITTNEY GRINER: Yeah.

SUMMERS: What was that like?

GRINER: Breathtaking. It was just - kind of reminded me of the first time I ever saw her. It was just - I didn't think I was going to see her again anytime soon. I thought it was going to be a good nine years before I saw, you know, my person. When I saw her through the window, I immediately broke down. I couldn't get off that plane quick enough. I'll never forget that. I just remember I was just hugging, hugging, hugging, just holding each other, crying. And then, you know, I was like, all right, let's get off this tarmac. Let's get inside.

SUMMERS: I mean, I just can't even imagine, given how much it's clear that you two love each other from what you've written, living with that uncertainty of not knowing when you're going to see your person again. What was it that got you through those days when you just didn't know?

GRINER: Just relying on my faith, honestly, and it definitely grew more while I was gone. I was just coming into, honestly, my faith with my wife. She was helping me with that. That's why I always say she saved my life in so many ways. You know, she opened my eyes to religion in a positive way. 'Cause there was a lot of days where I just didn't have the energy. I just didn't have the willpower. I had to give it to something higher than me and just believe and hope.

SUMMERS: After what you've been through, how do you cope when you hear people suggest that you don't deserve to be home with your wife, with your family, to be back with your teammates?

GRINER: It hurts. It definitely hurts. I mean, I'm human, so it hurts a little bit. But at the end of the day, you know, everyone's entitled to their own opinion, and, you know, I can't let it affect me. But I will say this. If it was up to me, and it was in my hands, everybody that was in Russia would have came back. And I remember getting on that plane when I did get the chance to come back, and, you know, I was really hopeful that, you know, Paul was on that plane with me.

SUMMERS: You're talking there about Paul Whelan, who's among the other Americans who has not been able to return home yet?

GRINER: Yes, ma'am.

SUMMERS: Throughout the book, you wrote so movingly about the guilt that you felt and about the fact that something that was an honest mistake, as you've said, led to months away from your wife and family, months under the conditions that you've been telling us about. And you also wrote about how despite getting forgiveness from your family, from your wife, it was hard to let go of that guilt. How did you get to a place where you felt able to let that go and to forgive yourself, if you have?

GRINER: A lot of counseling, therapy, talking. Everybody kept telling me to, you know, give myself grace. And that was the hardest thing to do because at the end of the day, you know, 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 - it's really hard.

I think, at times, I still feel like I haven't forgiven myself, honestly, because I'm just like, I robbed my family of time with me. You know, I robbed my wife of, you know, those special moments and just being there for her. That's probably my last healing piece that I will hopefully get to eventually.

SUMMERS: Yeah. How are you thinking about the future, Brittney?

GRINER: I mean, when I think of the future, I think it's going to be good. You know, we have a little one on the way...

SUMMERS: Congratulations.

GRINER: ...Me and my wife. We're - thank you. We're expecting a little boy on the way. So I'm just looking forward to parenthood and just enjoying every single moment of it. And, you know, all the talks my dad and mom gave me growing up and just saying, you know, one day you'll understand how much we worry and why we worry and why we give you lectures. And I'm already worrying about my kid, and, you know, they haven't even got here yet. So - but I'm already starting to see what they mean and just enjoying every moment we can.

SUMMERS: Last year, you said that you would not play overseas again unless you were representing the United States in the Olympics. And the Paris games, they're less than a hundred days away. You think that's going to be on the cards for you?

GRINER: I hope so because that will be an amazing return back to overseas and to represent my country that literally came to my rescue. I wouldn't be here without my country. And to go and potentially win another gold medal for us would - it's just going to mean so much, standing on that podium and watching the flag go up.

SUMMERS: We've been speaking with Brittney Griner about her memoir, "Coming Home." Brittney, thank you for your time.

GRINER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.