Brittney Griner told supporters their letters helped her “to not lose hope” when she was wrongfully detained in Russia, and encouraged them to write to fellow hostage Paul Whelan.
The WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist posted a handwritten note to Instagram on Wednesday, thanking those who sent her letters during the nearly 10 months she was imprisoned on drug charges. Griner was released Dec. 8 as part of a prisoner swap with Russia.
“You took time to show me you cared and I want to personally take the time to write to you and say that your effort mattered,” the Phoenix Mercury‘s eight-time all-star center wrote. “Your letters helped me to not lose hope during a time where I was full of regret and vulnerable in ways I could have never imagined.
“Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. Because of you I never lost hope.”
But while Griner is grateful to be home and spending the holidays with her family, she said she cannot forget those who can’t do the same. The Americans who remain wrongfully detained and their families still need support, Griner said.
“I hope you’ll join me in writing to Paul Whelan and continuing to advocate for other Americans to be rescued and returned to their families,” Griner said, including a State Department address where letters can be sent for Whelan.
The United States had pushed for a deal that would win the releases of both Griner and Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage charges and has been detained since 2018. But Russia refused, insisting on a one-for-one swap of Griner for Viktor Bout, a notorious arms dealer held in a U.S. prison since 2012.
Griner and her wife, Cherelle, have said they will continue to keep Whelan’s case in the spotlight and work for his release.
Griner was convicted Aug. 4 and sentenced to nine years in prison after police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Griner admitted she had the canisters in her luggage but testified she had inadvertently packed them in haste and that she had no criminal intent.
“Thank you again from the bottom of my heart,” Griner wrote. “I hope your holiday season is full of joy and love.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Brittney Griner thanks fans for letters, asks they write Paul Whelan