Two months after arrest, Brittney Griner’s case still surrounded in mystery

Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury looks on during the game against the Las Vegas Aces during Game Five of the 2021 WNBA Semifinals.
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WASHINGTON (AP) — For another person in another country at another time, the case might have been a minor matter: an American citizen detained at an airport for allegedly possessing a cannabis derivative legal in much of the world.

But the circumstances for Brittney Griner couldn’t have been worse.

Griner, a WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist, was arrested in Russia, where the offense can mean years in prison, and at a moment when tensions with the U.S. were rising to their highest point in decades. She is a prominent gay, Black woman facing trial in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LGBTQ community and the country’s nationalist zeal has raised concerns about how she will be treated.

“There are many countries around the world where you do not want to get in trouble, and Russia is one of them,” said Clarence Lusane, a Howard University political science professor who specializes in criminal justice and drug policy.

As extraordinary as her circumstances are, the details surrounding Griner’s case remain a mystery as a crucial court date approaches next month. Russian prosecutors have offered little clarity and the U.S. government has made only measured statements. Griner’s legal team has declined to speak out about the case as it works behind the scenes.

Griner is easily the most prominent American citizen known to be jailed by a foreign government, but in many ways her case isn’t unusual. Americans are frequently arrested overseas on drug and other charges and U.S. authorities are limited about what they can say or the help they can offer. The State Department generally can’t do much to help beyond consular visits and helping the American get an attorney. It also can’t say much unless the person arrested waives privacy rights, which Griner hasn’t fully done.

In some cases, U.S. officials do speak out loudly when they’re convinced an American has been wrongly detained. But Griner’s case is barely two months old and officials have yet to make that determination. A State Department office that works to free American hostages and unjust detainees is not known to be involved.

The Phoenix Mercury star was detained at a Moscow airport in mid-February after Russian authorities said a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges that allegedly contained oil derived from cannabis — accusations that could carry up to 10 years in prison, though some experts predict she’d get much less if convicted. She was returning to the country after the Russian League, in which she also plays, was taking a break for the FIBA World Cup qualifying tournament.

U.S. officials have said they are tracking the case but have not spoken extensively about it, in part because Griner has not signed a full Privacy Act Waiver. The statements so far have been careful and restrained, focused on ensuring she has access to U.S. consular affairs officials — she had a meeting last month — rather than explicitly demanding her immediate release.

There’s little the U.S. government can do diplomatically to end a criminal prosecution in another country, particularly in the early days of a case. Any deal that would require concessions by the U.S. would seem a nonstarter, especially with Russia at war with Ukraine and the U.S. coordinating actions involving Russia with Western allies.

“It’s a trial lawyer’s nightmare since you have to conduct a trial when the larger political environment is negative,” said William Butler, a Russian law expert and professor at Penn State Dickinson Law.

The State Department has been “doing everything we can to support Brittney Griner to support her family, and to work with them to do everything we can, to see that she is treated appropriately and to seek her release,” spokesman Ned Price said last month. Last week, he said the U.S. was in frequent contact with her legal team and “broader network.”

That’s a more restrained posture than the Biden administration has taken with two other Americans jailed in Russia — Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage-related charges his family says are bogus, and Trevor Reed, a Marine veteran sentenced to nine years on charges that he assaulted a police officer in Moscow as he was being driven to a police station after a night of heavy drinking.

The State Department has pressed Russia for their release. In contrast to Griner’s case, it has described both as unjustly detained.

Race and gender issues are front and center in the Griner case.

Lusane, the Howard University professor, said under Vladimir Putin “there’s been a hyper nationalism in Russia, so basically anyone who’s not considered Slavic is considered an outsider and a potential threat.”

He added, “She fits into that category.”

On the other hand, he said, there could also be an opening for Putin to build “an inroad into the African American community” by ordering her released as a humanitarian gesture.

Some Griner supporters, including Democratic Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri, have maintained that her case would be getting more attention if she weren’t a Black woman.

The president of the WNBA players’ association, Nneka Ogwumike, said in a “Good Morning America” interview that Griner was in Russia because WNBA players don’t earn enough in the U.S.

“She’s over there because of a gender issue, pay inequity,” Ogwumike said.

Many of Griner’s fellow WNBA players have remained circumspect for fear of antagonizing the situation, though her coach and some of her teammates have made clear in interviews that the 6-foot-9 center is on their minds.

“I spent 10 years there, so I know the way things work,” Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi said of Russia. “It’s delicate.”

Griner recently had her detention extended to May 19. More information about her case may emerge then. But regardless of the factual allegations against her in court, it’s impossible to divorce the legal case from the broader political implications.

“Russians are great chess players,” said Peter Maggs, a research professor and expert in Russian law at the University of Illinois College of Law. “The more pawns you have, the greater your chance of eventual victory. And since things are not going their way, obviously, in Ukraine, any pawns they have they want to hold on to.”

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Protect the dream: Paralympic champion Mallory Weggemann on her journey to motherhood

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At the 2022 U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships late last year, five-time Paralympic medalist Mallory Weggemann took on a new challenge: competing at 26 weeks pregnant. For the latest edition of Chasing Gold (Sunday, January 29th at 2pm ET on NBC), Weggemann shared her experience balancing competition with her plans for parenthood, both as an elite athlete and a woman with a disability. For On Her Turf, she shares more on that journey in her own words.

When news broke that the 2020 Paralympic & Olympic Games would be postponed a year to 2021, I felt the weight of what that meant for my personal life – a delayed Games meant the dream my husband and I held so close in our hearts of becoming parents would also be postponed. For the first time in my career, I found myself asking: To what end? How much more was I willing to sacrifice for my athletic career?

I have loved the sport of swimming since I first got behind the starting blocks when I was seven years old. It is the place that welcomed me home after my paralysis at the age of 18 and in 2009, when I was 20 years old, I was proudly named to my first national team. I never anticipated the places that sport would carry me, let alone to the top of the Paralympic podium. But on that day in March of 2020, I felt torn. I knew a year wasn’t just simply another 365 days. For my husband and I, it could determine whether we’d be able to have children of our own.

In 2017, the year after our wedding, we found out that we are among the 1 in 8 couples in the United States that are impacted by infertility. Following medical testing, we learned that my husband has azoospermia. In nonmedical language: he has significantly decreased sperm production, and without surgical intervention his sperm count is zero.

One year can last an eternity when you feel as if time isn’t on your side, but my husband and I chose to stay steadfast and hold onto this dream we’d been pursuing for nearly four years. With that decision, and thoughts of our Little One in our hearts, we decided that the journey to Tokyo was a family affair, even if our family wasn’t physically complete just yet.

Also from On Her Turf: U.S. freeskier Maggie Voisin Q+A: Two-time Olympian gets candid about grief, loss and finding motivation on the mountain

“Protect the dream” became our motto – it was our rallying cry as we kept these two dreams alive simultaneously: parenthood and elite competition. I first became a Paralympic gold medalist at the London 2012 Games, but after a near career-ending injury in 2014 that resulted in permanent nerve damage to my left arm, I fell short of a medal in Rio. Our fight to make it back atop the Paralympic podium had been over 8 years in the making. But going into Tokyo, we also knew each day we continued in that fight, we did so at the risk of losing our window to have children of our own. So, we held onto hope, filled each day with love, and made a conscious decision to protect the dream at all costs.

In September of 2021 I returned home and as my husband and I embraced for the first time in nearly a month I shared with him the two golds and silver that we won in Tokyo. While one dream was realized, we immediately transitioned to continue in our effort to protect the other as we fought to become parents. Within a month we were starting the process to begin IVF, a journey that was unlike anything we were prepared for.

Navigating through infertility felt daunting on so many fronts. My husband was looking at a world that had built up so much unnecessary stigma around male factor infertility, while I was figuring out how to navigate planning IVF cycles around my athletic career. And as a couple, we faced the reality that while we were committed to this journey, there was no guarantee.

Very quickly, we found ourselves in the depths of IVF: a process that brought two egg retrievals, a micro-TESE surgery for my husband, hormonal treatment for endometriosis, the grief that comes with navigating an unsuccessful transfer, a mock transfer cycle, an operative hysteroscopy and, to date, over 700 injections. Yet here we are, all these months later, joyfully preparing for the arrival of our Little One in March.

Throughout this journey we have been vocal about our infertility, because for us we intimately know that representation matters. I, a woman with a disability, don’t see women that look like me celebrated as mothers in our society. As a female athlete, there is the added challenge of timing something as unpredictable as infertility and motherhood within a quad between Games, let alone one that’s now three years rather than four. That’s not to mention the fact that many female athletes still feel the pressure to keep our family planning private out of concern that it will impact our careers. My husband, a man with infertility, isn’t represented in the conversation of reproductive health. We know we aren’t alone. There are other individuals with disabilities yearning to become parents. Other female athletes who are looking for a path forward to show them it doesn’t have to be an either/or when it comes to their athletic career and desire to become mothers. And the truth is, male factor infertility makes up 50% of the cases of infertility among couples. So, we have decided to share – because you can’t change the narrative if you never speak truth to it.

We know the journey is far from over – while we are expecting our first child, we are simultaneously laying plans to give ourselves a chance at another child in the future, because the reality of infertility is that you have to live in the simultaneous. And as we eagerly plan for Little One’s arrival, we also do so in a world that wasn’t built for a family unit like ours – society still has a hard time envisioning me, a woman with a disability, as capable of being a mother. So not only are we learning what adaptive parenting will look like – we are doing so in a world that is still filled with unconscious bias towards disability. And, as exciting as it is that the Paris 2024 Games are next year, in many ways I still feel the pressure as a female athlete to remind people that becoming a mother this year doesn’t mean I am retiring.

When I first made the U.S. national team at the age of 20, I never imaged I would be named to my 13th national team at 31 weeks pregnant. That is only possible because of the fierce women who came before me and while it is remarkable to see how far we have come, the conversation is far from over. What does that mean: It means we’ll keep having it. And representing that conversation will be the fuel that motivates me as we continue to “protect the dream,” fighting to return to the top of the Paralympic podium. The only difference this time is that Little One will be physically with us, in the stands in my husband’s arms, cheering mama on as I get behind the starting blocks.

U.S. freeskier Maggie Voisin Q+A: Two-time Olympian gets candid about grief, loss and finding motivation on the mountain

Maggie Voisin (USA) during the freestyle skiing-womens slopestyle qualification of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games
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Warning: This piece contains discussion around suicide.

Growing up in Whitefish, Montana, put freeskier Maggie Voisin on a nearly predestined path to become some sort of professional skier. It’s a path she loves, by the way, and one that she’s backed up with a slew of notable results during her nearly 10-year career on the U.S. Ski Team.

Since joining the U.S. team as a 15-year-old, Voisin’s been named to three U.S. Olympic teams, and she’s posted two top-five results in freeski slopestyle in two Winter Games appearances, finishing fourth in 2018 in PyeongChang and fifth in 2022 in Beijing, where she also placed 15th in freeski big air. She’s notched 15 World Cup top 10s, including a slopestyle win at Mammoth in 2017 and five other podium finishes, and she’s competed in three world championships, recording two top 10s in big air, placing ninth in Aspen in 2021 and eighth in 2019 at The Canyons (now Park City Mountain) in Utah.

Ahead of her 11th X Games appearance this week in Aspen, Colo., the two-time X Games gold medalist (she won the freeski slopestyle at Aspen 2018 and Norway 2020) talked with On Her Turf about the upcoming season, her blossoming film career and coming back from a string of heartbreaking injuries — including fracturing her right fibula during a training run at the 2014 Sochi Olympics when she was just 15. This week also marks the two-year anniversary of her brother Michael’s death by suicide, and Voisin gets candid about her loss, the lessons she’s learned, and the perspective shift she experienced during her most recent trip to the Olympics in Beijing.

This Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

On Her Turf: Heading into your 11th X Games, could you share some overall thoughts about the event and what X Games means to you?

Maggie Voisin: It’s really hard to put into words, what X Games means, especially as an action sport athlete. It’s the pinnacle of action sports, and since I was 12 years old, it was my dream to be in the X Games. And here I am, you know? My first X Games was nine years ago, in 2014, and it’s just crazy to think that my dream has come true. And I’ve been able to relive it year after year. So, coming into Aspen, I always try to hold on to like that gratitude of what X Games has meant to me as a child and what it’s meant to me throughout my entire career.

OHT: This is your first competition since the Olympics last February… What did you work on in the offseason and what might 2023 look like for you?

Voisin: Last year was just a wild season. I was trying to qualify for the Olympics, I was also kind of nursing a couple injuries. So mentally, emotionally, physically, last year was a lot. I’m super grateful. It was a lot, though. This past offseason, I needed to take some time to reset, and I was home in Montana. I took a bulk of time off from training. But I started training again in September. … I don’t want to take too much time off, but really just giving myself some time and space [before heading] into this season. X Games will be my first event of the season, and then hopefully do a couple more World Cups. But also, I’m filming this year for a ski movie with one of my teammates, Colby Stevenson, [freeskier] Tom Wallisch. It’ll be a Good Company movie. It’ll be a mix of backcountry skiing, hitting jumps, snowmobiling. I’m really just trying to diversify my career and get myself into a whole new world. So, this year is really exciting.

OHT: I had noted that there were at least two films that you’re in this year, “Mavericks” and “75 years.” Can you tell us a little more about your burgeoning film career?

Voisin: Honestly, since my career started, I always knew that I wanted to film. … I’ve done a little bit of filming in the past. In 2020, I did a personal project called “Swiftcurrent.” I was filming in between competing and mostly backcountry skiing. That was my first-time little project, and I’m very, very proud of it. For me, it felt like the true beginning of my film career. But headed into the next several years, it’s something that I want to dive into a lot more. It’s a whole new world, there’s so much to learn. I feel like a newbie, which is fun. It’s fun to feel like you’re restarting in a totally different way.

OHT: Rewinding a little, you’ve suffered a string of injuries starting with the heartbreaking incident in Sochi in 2014, fracturing your right fibula on a training run. But I read you found some positives in the experience and ended up staying in Sochi with your teammates. When you look back on that experience, what stands out for you?

Voisin: Oh man, I was 15 years old. I really did the best that I could. … It was absolutely devastating. I felt like I was on fire. I had that rookie fire in me and I wanted to give it my all. I really felt like I had the potential to do amazing in Sochi. And then that happened, and it felt like my world came crashing down. But once I was able to kind of step out of that grief, and really reflect on how far I’d come in that season – that’s what kind of carried me through. Also, that injury kept a fire within me throughout the four years leading up to the 2018 Games, of wanting to get back and make that Olympic team and prove that I still had it.

OHT: You actually did come back that same calendar year, and in your first contest, you get injured again. What happened?

Voisin: So after my crash in February 2014, I didn’t need surgery, which was great, but I did have a small meniscus tear on my right knee, so I ended up getting a scope. The recovery mirrored each other – the ankle and the knee – so I was healthy by summer and came back and was skiing great. Then our first contest of the year, December 2014, I was that the Dew Tour in Breckenridge, Colo., at the time. I had qualified first into finals, and then the next day — my first run in finals — I tore my ACL on my left knee. The day before my 16th birthday. Not a very sweet 16.

OHT: A year of some real highs and lows. How did you get through that year in particular?

Voisin: Honestly, I just had this fire within me and – above all – my love and passion for skiing. I knew what I was capable of achieving and I really felt like I was rising to be one of the best woman slopestyle skiers at the time. It’s devastating when you get an injury, and I feel like maybe this is instilled through my family, but I just always find the positive perspective. For me, it was this realization of, “Yes, this is a bummer. I felt like I was really going to be on top that season. But at the same time, I want to come back, and I want to come out of this stronger.” That’s just kind of where my motivation during rehab and for getting back on snow came from. And I’ve really been able to prove to myself, time and time again, through all my injuries that I have come back stronger.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Slopestyle gold medalist Zoi Sadowski-Synnott charges into X Games with big new trick and World Cup momentum

OHT: Looking back to your childhood… You have a twin brother, Tucker. What’s it like being a twin?

Voisin: I absolutely love being a twin. And we were super close growing up. Then my older brother, who is two years older, and then I have a sister who’s eight years older. I spent more time in my younger years around my brothers. I was total tomboy – I had to keep up with them, but I was also very competitive with them, which I think is where I got my kind of daredevil, fearless attitude. But having a twin is very special. We’re so different and unique, but we’re very, very close.

OHT: I read you started skiing at age 2. Were your parents big skiers?

Voisin: My mom’s an incredible skier. My dad is a ski bum through and through. He lives for his powder days, and he’s the one who really showed me and taught me my love for the mountains. I’m so grateful that some of my favorite days are out with my dad – just him and I. My parents are so supportive. You know, if we didn’t love skiing that would have been all right. but at the same time, we were gonna be raised to skiers. Being from Whitefish, Montana, in the winter, to be honest, there’s not much else to do. So, I think I was destined to be some sort of skier.

OHT: This week marks two years since the loss of your older brother, Michael. I’m so sorry for your loss. It was both heart-wrenching and inspiring to read some of your previous responses when you’ve addressed the subject, and it seems like you have a very clear message about how you’ve dealt with grief and loss. Could you share more about that?

Voisin: I’d never lost anyone that close to me in my life before, and to lose a brother, one of my best friends, is just a totally different story. That season, I was coming back from a knee surgery in August of 2020, and it was the week of X Games, and I just had to step away from skiing, be there for my family, and grieve, and grieve as a family. So, I took time off and took it easy that season, and I was home a lot just with my family. It was a really special time as well, which is crazy to say, but my family grew so immensely close, and I’m very grateful for that.

I also realized, too, that my brother wouldn’t want me to keep living in pain, so I just had to remember kind of what life is about, and that I just wanted to live it to the fullest. Gosh, he was such an incredible human being; he truly was a hard worker. Everyone’s always like, “Oh, you’re the Olympian, you’re the X Games medalist.” And I say, “Well, that takes a lot of work, but you have not met my brother, Michael. He is so dedicated and does it with such a passion and so much kindness.” And I really just wanted to embody what he was, and what he meant to me. And that was just going out, giving it my all, but still just putting my heart into it — everything I have — and just being genuine and kind and sharing that with the world. And I think, for me, that’s what I try to hold on to.

OHT: Thank you so much for sharing that. It’s really powerful. I also read you said it made your Olympics experience last year much more special — that you were looking at things through a different lens. Could you explain that more?

Voisin: I think anyone who’s experienced a loss in their life, they understand that it’s like a whole, oh-my-gosh moment of how precious life really is. You never know when you’re not going to have another day or whatever. For me, it was about realizing how grateful I was, everything that I have been through to get there, and to enjoy it for what it is and to live in the present moment.

… I’ve come back from a lot of injuries, but is grief is a totally different beast. And I think I was just really trying to soak it in, and also really appreciate the [people] that I’m around, my friends, and really let them know how much I appreciate them, that I’m there for them, and how grateful I was to be experiencing this moment with some of my best friends. I think that’s also part of [healing], too, is letting these important people in your life know how much they mean to you.

OHT: I think that’s a really meaningful message. And it appears your peers feel just as fortunate to have you in their lives, having honored you with the 2023 Buddy Werner Award for sportsmanship this past July. What did that award mean to you?

Voisin: I have always said that my career, the medals and such, are super important – that’s always the goal — but at the end of the day, if I can inspire somebody else, and if the people around me can feel that love and that passion that skiing brings me, and if that that can ignite a fire in them to go out and do what they love with so much passion, then that’s all that matters. I can remember so vividly saying that when I was 15. Wow, that’s nine years ago! I feel like I’ve really, really held to what that meant for me.

So to get this award really has proven and kind of shown that my ultimate goal in skiing – to be an inspiration – at least I have been living up to that. Also, it’s really inspired me to continue to be that person for everyone I meet as well, to just try and be a light. Even if I’m just opening a door for someone, or giving someone a smile – if it’s true, the little things matter. It can change someone’s day around.

OHT: Speaking of inspiration, you award an annual scholarship to young athletes in Whitefish Freestyle Ski Team program, covering their fees for their team membership and the cost of a season pass to Whitefish Mountain Resort. I bet you’ve gotten some great essays from prospective recipients. What was your motivation for creating the scholarship?

Voisin: Oh, they’re so adorable. I can only imagine being that young and writing an essay. But honestly, the passion and the excitement that these kids put into it just warms my heart so much. I’ve been doing this the past several years, and it’s just so important for me to give back to the community that gave me everything, especially the local freestyle team. That’s where it all started for me. I always knew that I wanted to do something to give back, and just starting in a small way, has been so special. I’m still just in the beginning stages of where I can possibly take it but starting there, by giving a kid an opportunity by paying their fees and paying for their season pass, it just it makes me feel so grateful.

And then those essays, oh my gosh, they tear my heart apart. It’s so fun to hear how they perceive skiing, and it just reminds me of when I was a kid and I’m like, “Yes, OK, yes, I’m gonna hold on to what this kid said.” I’m gonna remember that when I’m out skiing, that I got started in this sport because I love it, because I get to be out with my friends, enjoying the mountain. There are so many wonderful things that it’s brought to me. 

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 800-273-TALK (8255), text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

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