SAN ANTONIO, Texas (KTRK) -- Brittney Griner was just hours away from being back on American soil Thursday night.
The WNBA star and Houston native had been detained in Russia since February, while people, politicians, and celebrities across the country advocated for her freedom. The news of a prisoner swap broke early Thursday morning.
Nine months of separation from her wife, family, and her home will end once Griner's plane touches down at Kelly Field. From there, she'll make the roughly 20-minute trip to Brooke Army Medical Center, where she'll be admitted for a medical evaluation.
Video from Thursday morning was the first time Griner had been seen publicly since before she was transferred to a penal colony in Russia in November to carry out a nine-year sentence. At that time, there was no certainty surrounding if or when she would be released. That didn't stop people in Houston from hoping.
"I don't know if she realizes the number of people that were lifting her up in prayer, that were praying for her and saying, 'Release Brittney Griner,' the immense support that she had from all over," Mayor Sylvester Turner said.
Turner said the deal for Griner's freedom didn't come without a price. He celebrated her release while remembering other Americans who still haven't come home.
"I hope she knows that no one gave up on her. In the same vein, no one has given up on Paul Whelan. I know she'll have an incredible story to tell at some point, but in her own time and her own way," he said.
Griner's family also released the following statement:
We would like to extend our sincere gratitude to President Biden and his administration for the tireless work they did to bring Brittney home. We would also like to extend a special thank you to Governor Richardson and Mickey Bergman of the Richardson Center for their work, as well as remaining in constant communication with us.
We sincerely thank you all for the kind words, thoughts and prayers - including Paul and the Whelan family who have been generous with their support for Brittney and our family during what we know is a heartbreaking time. We pray for Paul and for the swift and safe return of all wrongfully-detained Americans.
We ask that you respect our privacy as we embark on this road to healing.
For now, Griner told Russian State Media that she was happy and ready to come home. Noticeably, her long locs have been cut, but she appeared healthy and unharmed. She will undergo a full medical evaluation at the largest military healthcare organization the Department of Defense has to offer, where several American detainees have also received care once they returned from prison overseas.
"It's the best Christmas present ever," Debbie Jackson, Griner's former Nimitz High School basketball coach, said.
She and the city of Houston have expressed gratitude to have Griner home for the holidays.