President Joe Biden's negotiations with Russia were kept largely under wraps, with the White House waiting to announce that Griner, 32, would be coming home in a prisoner swap with Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who had been serving 25 years in a U.S. prison, early Thursday morning once she was already on the plane.
Griner had spent the last month in a harsh Russian penal colony in Mordovia where she was set to serve out her nine-year prison sentence for drug smuggling, unaware if the prisoner swap — which had first come up as a possibility in late July — would happen.
Griner's lawyer in Russia, Maria Blagovolina, a partner at Rybalkin Gortsunyan Dyakin and Partners, tells PEOPLE she last saw the Phoenix Mercury star in person three weeks ago, soon after she arrived in Mordovia. More recently, they spoke over the phone, along with her co-council Alexander Boykov, from the Moscow Legal Center.
EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/POOL/AFP via Getty (L-R) Maria Blagovolina, Brittney Griner and Alexander Boykov
"She was very stressed after the transfer to Mordovia and was trying to adjust to new surroundings," Blagovolina says.
But, she adds, "Brittney was doing great" in the penal colony.
"She is a fighter. It was extremely challenging for her, but she did really great," Blagovolina says.
During that call, Griner said she had "good signs" that the prisoner swap would happen, and Blagovolina started to hear the same.
"There were positive signs since last week and we felt that the momentum is near," she says.
Blagovolina got confirmation that Griner was in the process of coming home with everyone else on Thursday morning, and was immediately emotional.
"To be honest with you, I cried," she says.
She hasn't yet been able to speak with Griner, who landed in San Antonio early Friday morning and will undergo routine medical evaluations to check on her health, but Blagovolina says she and Boykov "really hope" to stay in touch with the athlete now that she's back home safe.
"It has been a privilege to represent BG and we are very happy that she will spend the Christmas at home!" Blagovolina says.