Brittney Griner

2023 wish list: Top women’s sports storylines to follow in the new year

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Women’s sports fans have lots to look forward to in 2023: From the return of Brittney Griner to the WNBA court to the start of the FIFA Women’s World Cup to several new GOAT watches (we see you, Mikaela Shiffrin!), the new year is already chock full of storylines we can’t wait to see play out. On Her Turf looks at several stories we’ll be following when the calendar flips into January and beyond.


The return of Brittney Griner

It seemed like the entire sports world at large breathed a collective sigh of relief when WNBA star Brittney Griner was released from a Russian prison on Dec. 8 after nearly 10 months of detention. Just eight days later, the eight-time All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist infused fans with even more glee when she stated her plans to be on court and wearing her familiar No. 42 for the Phoenix Mercury when the league kicks off its 27th season on May 19.

What’s more, we’ll have at least four more opportunities to watch her play in 2023, as the WNBA increased its regular-season schedule to a record-high 40 games per team — up four games from last season. For the Mercury in particular, Griner’s return also means a reunion with teammate and 10-time All-Star Diana Taurasi, who announced in November that she’ll be returning for her 19th season in the league. Taurasi, who’s won three WNBA titles with Phoenix and five Olympic gold medals with Team USA, ended her season early last year after suffering a quadriceps injury in early August. Griner, who’s technically an unrestricted free agent, boasts career averages of 30.9 minutes per game and 17.7 points, and she was particularly dominant in the 2021 postseason where she averaged 21.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and shot 56.2 percent in Phoenix’s run to the WNBA Finals, where they lost to the Chicago Sky.

The Mercury will visit the Los Angeles Sparks for their season opener on May 19 before hosting the Chicago Sky in their home opener on May 21.


USWNT goes for historic three-peat at FIFA Women’s World Cup

The countdown is on to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, July 20-Aug. 20, where the U.S. Women’s National Team will look to defend their 2019 title at the tournament cohosted by Australia and New Zealand. The four-time World Cup champs also have their sights set on a historic three-peat, after taking the title in 2015 and 2019. The U.S. women could become the first team in either the women’s or men’s game to win three successive World Cups.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: 2023 Women’s World Cup storylines to watch as USWNT takes aim at historic three-peat

The current USWNT includes a healthy mix of newcomers and veterans, led by Alex Morgan, Becky Sauerbrunn and Megan Rapinoe, winner of both the Golden Boot and Golden Ball in 2019. But an infusion of new talent is already capturing attention, led by former Stanford teammates Sophia Smith and Naomi Girma, and 20-year-old Trinity Rodman, who was a Ballon d’Or finalist this year. Smith, a member of the 2022 NWSL championship-winning Portland Thorns, earned league MVP honors, while Girma won both Rookie and Defender of the Year awards last season.

We’re looking forward to seeing more of this new-look USWNT in the new year, including next month in New Zealand, where they’ll play a two-game series (Jan. 17 and 20) against the co-host nation. The U.S. women kick off their title defense Friday, July 21, with their first World Cup Group E match vs. tournament newcomer Vietnam.


G.O.A.T watch 2023: Mikaela Shiffrin, Katie Ledecky chase history

To say the last week of the year was a momentum builder is an understatement for alpine racer Mikaela Shiffrin, who swept three straight World Cup races – two giant slalom, one slalom – in Semmering, Austria, to bring her career total to 80 wins. The number puts her two wins away from the women’s record of 82 wins, held by fellow American Lindsey Vonn, and six wins away from the all-time record of 86 held by Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark.

The 27-year-old Shiffrin, who’s won six races this season and is on a four-win streak, could tie Vonn’s record as early as next week in Zagreb, Croatia, which will host slalom races on Jan. 4 and 5. The two-time Olympic gold medalist has four previous slalom victories at Zagreb and finished second there in 2020 and 2022.

RELATED: With career records in view, Mikaela Shiffrin knows nothing is promised

Also chasing an American legend for all-time honors is swimming great Katie Ledecky, who heads into 2023 as the AP Female Athlete of the Year, earning the honor for the second time in her career. Ledecky edged out track star Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone in balloting after winning all four of her races at the FINA World Championships in June, setting two world records in the process and becoming the first swimmer to win five consecutive world titles in one individual event (800m freestyle).

She now owns 22 career world championships medals, including 19 gold, which bests the previous U.S. women’s record of 20, held by Natalie Coughlin (eight gold). Ledecky’s 19th career gold at 2022 worlds broke a tie with Ryan Lochte for the second-most in history and puts her just seven back of Michael Phelps (26). She’ll take aim at another all-time record this July at the 2023 World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, where just one in individual world title would tie her with Phelps’ record of 15.


2023 Solheim Cup: Americans head to Spain as underdogs?

The ultimate women’s team golf event heads to an intriguing new venue, Finca Cortesin Golf Club in Andalucia, Spain. The club played host to the men’s Volvo World Match Play Championship three times from 2009-2012 and will serve as the biennial event’s backdrop for its 18th edition. The European squad, winners of the last two matches at Inverness Club in Ohio (2021) and Gleneagles in Scotland (2019), will be captained by Norway’s two-time major winner Suzann Pettersen, who boasts an 18-12-6 record overall in nine Solheim Cup appearances. The 15-time LPGA winner is known for her mic-drop moment at the 2019 matches, where she holed the winning putt for the Europeans after being away from the game on maternity leave for nearly 20 months prior to the event.

RELATED: The biggest questions in Olympic sports for 2023

For the Americans, who have won the cup 10 times in the matches’ history, they’ll look to win the cup for the first time since 2017 and the first time on foreign soil since 2015 in Germany. Stacy Lewis, a four-time U.S. Solheim Cup team member (5-10-1 overall record), will serve as captain of the American squad, which perhaps for the first time could be considered the underdogs. Currently, there are six Americans in the top 30 of the Rolex Rankings compared to seven European players. The calendar date – set for Sept. 18-24 – should give the matches an added boost, too, as they fall one week before the men’s Ryder Cup in Rome.


Can South Carolina repeat as NCAA women’s basketball champions?

The South Carolina women’s basketball team hasn’t missed a beat since winning the 2022 NCAA national championship last April, blazing through six post-season games including a 64-49 win over UConn in the tournament final. And the Gamecocks have kicked off the 2022-23 season with a 12-game win streak, maintaining their hold of the top spot in The Associated Press Top 25 women’s basketball poll for 27 consecutive weeks.

The Gamecocks reached a milestone in the process, with their 27-week streak marking the fifth-longest run of all time. UConn holds the record for the longest streak at 51 weeks, dating from Feb. 18, 2008, to Dec. 10, 2010. Louisiana Tech has the second longest at 36 weeks, and the Huskies also hold the third and fourth spots on the list, with 34- and 30-week runs at No. 1. South. Carolina started last season at No. 1 and hasn’t relinquished the ranking since. With more than eight weeks left in the regular season, the Gamecocks are on track to keep climbing the all-time list.

Whether or not they’ll repeat as national champions remains to be seen, but it would mark the third national title for head coach Dawn Staley, who also was at the helm for South Carolina’s 2017 championship win over Mississippi State. Staley has four starters back this season, including 2022 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year Aliyah Boston, Victaria Saxton, Brea Beal and Zia Cooke (only Destanni Henderson graduated). Boston, who’s averaging 12.4 points and 9.6 rebounds and is expected to be a frontrunner for various player-of-the-year awards again this season.


WTA celebrates its 50th anniversary 

It was June 21, 1973 – the eve of Wimbledon Championships – when the already nine-time Grand Slam champion Billie Jean King called a players’ meeting at London’s Gloucester Hotel that would change the course of women’s professional tennis. Frustrated by the obvious gender inequity and an establishment that split the talent pool among competing circuits, King spearheaded the players’ efforts to formally join forces and pioneer their own destiny. Since then, what began as a players’ union has morphed into member association between athletes and the more than 50 tournaments on six continents, boasting parity in all Grand Slam prize money since 2007. Heading into 2023, the WTA notes that 32 countries are represented in the Top 100 of the WTA rankings, with more than 900 million fans worldwide expected to take in tour action next year.

To celebrate, the organization has unveiled a season-long campaign that will pay tribute to the game’s legends as well as its current stars — but through a lens focused on the future. Called “WTA 50: Just Starting,” the campaign will highlight not only what can be done to improve the sporting landscape for women around the world, but also how the WTA can “effectively champion equality and inclusivity for all.” Cheers to the next 50 years!

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Brittney Griner visited in Russian prison by U.S. Embassy officials

US' Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) basketball player Brittney Griner.
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WASHINGTON — Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow visited jailed WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday, just weeks after a Russian court rejected her appeal of her nine-year sentence for drug possession.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a tweet that the American representatives “saw firsthand her tenacity and perseverance despite her present circumstances.”

Price said the Biden administration is continuing to press for the immediate release of Griner and Paul Whelan, who was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison in Russia on espionage-related charges that he and his family say are bogus, and “fair treatment for every detained American.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Griner “is doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances” and that the administration was working “to resolve the current unacceptable and wrongful detentions” of Griner and Whelan.”

Griner was was convicted in August after police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Her arrest in February came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington, just days before Russia sent troops into Ukraine. At that time, Griner was returning to play for a Russian team during the WNBA’s offseason.

She admitted at her trial to having the canisters in her luggage but testified she packed them inadvertently in her haste to make her flight and had no criminal intent. Her lawyers have called the punishment excessive.

The United States regards Griner and Whelan as wrongful detainees and has been trying to negotiate with Russia for their release. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said over the summer that the U.S. had made a “substantial proposal” to Russia to try to get both home.

People familiar with the offer have said the U.S. wanted to swap Whelan and Griner for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

There have been no outward signs of progress since then in the negotiations.

Jean-Pierre told reporters traveling with the president to New Mexico that “despite a lack of good faith negotiation by the Russians, the U.S. government has continued to follow up on that offer and propose alternative potential ways forward with Russia through all available channels. This continues to be a top priority.”

Brittney Griner’s appeal rejected by Russian court, 9-year sentence upheld

US basketball player Brittney Griner stands in a defendants' cage before a court hearing during her trial on charges of drug smuggling, in Khimki, outside Moscow.
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MOSCOW — A Russian court on Tuesday upheld the nine-year prison sentence handed to American basketball star Brittney Griner for drug possession, rejecting her appeal.

Griner, an eight-time all-star center with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was convicted Aug. 4 after police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.

The Moscow region court ruled Tuesday to uphold the sentence. In the ruling the court stated, however, that the time Griner will have to serve in prison will be recalculated with her time in pre-trial detention taken into account. One day in pre-trial detention will be counted as 1.5 days in prison, so the basketball star will have to serve around eight years in prison.

Griner took part in the Moscow Regional Court hearing via video call from a penal colony outside Moscow where she is imprisoned.

Griner’s February arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington, just days before Russia sent troops into Ukraine. At the time, Griner was returning to Russia, where she played during the U.S. league’s offseason.

Griner admitted she had the canisters in her luggage but testified that she inadvertently packed them in haste and had no criminal intent. Her defense team presented written statements saying she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.

The nine-year sentence was close to the maximum of 10 years, and Griner’s lawyers argued after the conviction that the punishment was excessive. They said in similar cases defendants have received an average sentence of about five years, with about a third of them granted parole.

Before her conviction, the U.S. State Department declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” – a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.

Reflecting growing pressure on the Biden administration to do more to bring Griner home, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the unusual step of revealing publicly in July that Washington had made a “substantial proposal” to get Griner home, along with Paul Whelan, an American serving a 16-year sentence in Russia for espionage.

Blinken didn’t elaborate, but The Associated Press and other news organizations have reported that Washington has offered to exchange Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. and once earned the nickname the “merchant of death.”

The White House said it has not yet received a productive response from Russia to the offer.

Russian diplomats have refused to comment on the U.S. proposal and urged Washington to discuss the matter in confidential talks, avoiding public statements.

In September, U.S. President Joe Biden met with Cherelle Griner, the wife of Brittney Griner, as well as the player’s agent, Lindsay Colas. Biden also sat down separately with Elizabeth Whelan, Paul Whelan’s sister.

The White House said after the meetings that the president stressed to the families his “continued commitment to working through all available avenues to bring Brittney and Paul home safely.”

The U.S. and Russia carried out a prisoner swap in April. Moscow released U.S. Marines veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for the U.S. releasing a Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was convicted in a drug trafficking conspiracy.

Moscow also has pushed for the release of other Russians in U.S. custody.

One of them is Alexander Vinnik, who was accused of laundering billions of dollars through an illicit cryptocurrency exchange. Vinnik was arrested in Greece in 2017 and extradited to the U.S. in August.

Vinnik’s French lawyer, Frederic Belot, told Russian newspaper Izvestia last month that his client hoped to be part of a possible swap.

The newspaper speculated that another possible candidate was Roman Seleznev, the son of a Russian lawmaker. He was sentenced in 2017 to 27 years in prison on charges from a hacking and credit card fraud scheme.