‘Your life can get back to normal’: How Brittney Griner’s return to WNBA inspires former detainees

On July 4, 2022, Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner sent a letter to President Joe Biden. Writing from a Russian prison, she told him how she feared being indefinitely detained. She pleaded with Biden to not forget about her, or the dozens of other Americans the U.S. government considers as being wrongfully held overseas. “It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate this day because freedom means something completely different to me this year,” Griner wrote.

The next day, Jorge Toledo, an American who was being held captive in Venezuela, penned his own letter to Biden. It opened with a similar refrain. Toledo wrote that he had been thinking about Independence Day and “its meaning and impact for what we know as freedom, which I do not have at this moment.” He described “fighting a battle against a very powerful counterpart.” “Mr. President, I need your help,” he wrote.

“Without knowing,” Toledo says, reflecting on the note nearly a year later, “my letter and her letter had some sort of connection.”

Last summer, Toledo was in the midst of his own ordeal abroad. His began in November 2017, when he and five other American Citgo executives were summoned to a last-minute business meeting in Caracas and arrested shortly after arrival. At first, he says, he was placed in isolation. In his letter, he described bouts with multiple physical ailments — pneumonia, kidney failure, COVID-19, dramatic weight loss — and of the “dramatic conditions as a consequence of living in a dungeon.” Three years after his arrest, Toledo was sentenced in court on corruption-related charges. Like Griner, the U.S. government deemed he was wrongfully held hostage in a foreign country.

Toledo was still in a Venezuelan prison when he learned of Griner’s detainment. In March 2022, he was put onto the news from a custodian cleaning his cell and from a few minutes of a television broadcast he saw. In a monitored phone call with his wife, Carmen, who was back home in Houston, Toledo asked for more information about Griner’s case. “I had an instinct at that time that it was going to impact me in some way,” he says. “I didn’t know positively or negatively, but I said, this event is going to create an impact, a cause and effect.”

More than a year later, Toledo, who was released with other Americans in a prisoner swap in October 2022, recalls his intuition from back then, and the letter that unknowingly bonded them. “When she was detained, it was a point of inflection on our situation, and also the general situation of U.S. hostages around the world,” he says.

For that, Toledo is grateful.

Griner’s release came just over two months after Toledo’s, when she was part of a high-profile exchange involving Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who had been serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S. for conspiring to kill Americans among other charges. As she exited a plane at the U.S. Army’s Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Houston, she joined a community of fellow former American detainees who had returned home.

Following 294 days in Russian custody, Griner was not pressured to jump back into professional basketball. But just a week after her return to the U.S., she announced her intention to play for the Mercury this season. Averaging 20 points per game en route to making her ninth All-Star team, Griner has become a point of pride for those in the hostage community cheering her on.

Jorge Toledo, right, with his wife and son after returning home from being detained in a Venezuelan prison. (Courtesy of Jorge Toledo)

“I think the message sent to the hostage community is that when you do get out of this, your life can go back to normal, or it can be better,” says Osman Khan, who spent 249 days detained in Venezuela in a matter unrelated to Toledo’s, but who was similarly freed last October. “Things don’t happen to us, but they happen for us.”

Beginning in May 2019, Sam Goodwin was held captive in Syria for 62 days. Four years after his ordeal, he says of watching Griner return to play: “It’s one thing to come back and be healthy. It’s another thing to get back and be an athlete competing at the highest level.

“I was like, I wonder how long that took?”

It involved treatment in San Antonio to help her initial reacclimate. And it took hours of private workouts to gear up for the season. Griner crammed high-profile advocacy appearances at the Met Gala and White House Correspondents’ Dinner in between Mercury training camp practices. Goodwin is not a basketball fan and says he didn’t know anything about Griner prior to her detainment. But this year, he’s routinely watched her highlights. Seeing Griner in both on-court and off-court settings, he, too, is thankful for not only her return but also for her commitment to raising awareness for those the U.S. government says are still being unjustly held. (The James W. Foley Legacy Foundation says there are currently 59 publicly disclosed American hostage and wrongful detention cases.)

“I hope that her release can be a catalyst for others,” Goodwin says.

While in solitary confinement, Goodwin leaned on a number of things for strength: faith, perspective he had gained through travel, gratitude for food and water, a belief in purpose, a desire to see friends and family. As a former Division I hockey player at Niagara University, he additionally relied on traits he learned through competitive athletics. “Mental toughness. Critical thinking. Resilience.”

“I think Brittney might be in a little bit of a better place than some other Americans, some other hostages around the world, because she’s a competitive athlete and she’s developed some of these skills her entire life,” he says. “Skills that I leaned on in captivity and that I knew instinctively she would (have) as well.”

Toledo has been a marathoner for more than 20 years. Like Goodwin, he says, “I think that the mindset of an athlete is something that, in my case, helped me in my survival.” In January, he ran the Aramco Houston Half Marathon. In April, Toledo, 61, completed the Boston Marathon in just more than five hours.

As Griner took the floor on May 19 for her first regular-season game since returning from Russia, Toledo thought back to his running of Boston. “What I felt when I crossed the finish line is something that I cannot describe into words, and I am sure Brittney Griner cannot describe her first score after her ordeal,” he says.


In reality, though, Griner’s first basket came months earlier, when she dunked on a hoop at the base in San Antonio. In a late April press conference, she noted that having a basketball in her hand for the first time was liberating. She acknowledged the challenges in working her way back physically. “Just the little things. I mean, doing a plank, so simple before and I couldn’t even stay up very long,” she said.

Toledo, too, spent time in San Antonio as he transitioned back to society after 1,775 days in Venezuela. It was there he ran in freedom for the first time in five years. “I felt all the weakness in my legs,” he says. Yet he valued seeing the sun rise, the colors of the sky, the scent in the air.

The “process of captivity doesn’t end when you are released,” he says. A past cycle closes, but a new one begins. For Toledo, re-engaging in some otherwise mundane tasks brought stress. Before driving a car again, he spent several minutes behind the wheel waiting to turn on the engine. Writing a check to the power company brought on similar anxiety.

Though they are both part of the close-knit hostage community, Toledo hasn’t yet met Griner. Still, he appreciates how she has continued to advocate for other detainees through her work with the Bring Our Families Home campaign. “That is a way that I’m trying to help out in any way that I can,” Griner said in April, adding, “I’m really fortunate to have this platform that I have.”

Twelve months later, both have returned to their families — no longer needing to close a letter with, “from my captivity, very truly yours” as Toledo did in his note. He says Griner has “fulfilled a mission of helping others without even knowing it.” He continues to track how she’s playing. Toledo was thrilled when he saw Griner score for the first time, and for every basket she’s scored since.

(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; Top photos of Brittney Griner: Evgenia Novozhenina / AFP via Getty Images, Steph Chambers / Getty Images, Dustin Satloff / Getty Images)

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