MONUMENT - Monday afternoon a curious parent walked up to Bill and Judy Peer, owners of Colorado Juniors Volleyball, wondering what's happened to the "rookies" practice for boys and girls ages 8-12.
The rookies snuck out, not wanting to miss the chance to see hometown hero Haleigh Washington who was signing autographs nearby. Washington, a Doherty High School graduate, returned to Colorado Juniors, where she played during her high school years, weeks after making history with the U.S. women's national team at the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo, taking home the country's first Olympic gold medal in the sport.
Volleyball players of all ages got an opportunity to smile, flex, laugh and take a photo with Washington. She even let a few young girls wear her gold medal.
"I love being able to give back to the game that's given me so much, and getting to talk to kids that are pursuing their dreams in this same sport that I love is amazing," she said.
The Olympic champion handed Bill her Team USA jersey in front of scores of young volleyball players at a celebration in her honor.
Bill recalls his first meeting with Washington, imploring her to join Colorado Juniors. Washington, who was entering high school in Idaho Springs at the time, was on the fence, and Bill asked her where she wanted to play in college. Washington said Penn State, and Bill immediately dialed Nittany Lions coach Russ Rose on his phone.
"That's when I think it started getting real," Washington's mother, Danielle, said. "Like, 'Wow this is something that could get me where I want to be. This is something that I could pursue and actually be successful at.'"
Washington soon joined Colorado Juniors, commuting to Monument from Idaho Springs the first two years. Then Danielle and her husband, Alecs, moved to Colorado Springs for the final two.
The Washingtons have formed a tight-knit bond with Colorado Juniors. That was never more evident to the Peers than when Washington was 17 and selected to the U.S. World Junior National team to play in the world championships in the Czech Republic. The Colorado Juniors 17s team was getting ready for nationals as the top-ranked team in the country. Washington turned down the opportunity to stay with her club.
"So she turned down the USA and fortunately, they came calling again," Bill said.
Afterward she attended Penn State. She is one of 443 athletes who have taken part in the program and gone on to play at the collegiate level, according to Bill.
The 2020 Olympics were different from others due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, Washington's family had to watch her success from home.
"It sucked," Alecs said . "We did the next best thing, we celebrated her as much as we possibly could at home, we went down to the watch party that was put together by Team USA and NBC, and we had a grand ole time."
While Washington's family overcame adversity stateside, Washington and the U.S. women's team did so overseas.
"No family, no fans, no nothing, and it's just different," Washington said. "I wouldn't say that it's any worse or that it's bad or a negative experience because it's just a different experience. You find ways to bring energy from within."
Jayne McHugh is the first Colorado athlete to make the U.S. women's team. She was a part of the 1988 Olympic Team in Seoul, South Korea. Now the volleyball coach at Valor Christian in Highlands Ranch, she brought her entire program to meet Washington. McHugh got to ask Washington how her team battled through adversity .
"I love this team," Washington said. "We would not have what we have if it wasn't for all 12 of us. That's what makes a really great team. It's people stepping up and knowing their roles and being willing to kind of do the hard thing and maybe not be a starter."
The Washingtons made sacrifices off the court as well. Her dad wanted her to play basketball. The Peers joke with Alecs about emails they used to trade about him being adamant of her being a basketball player first.
"When she decided that she wanted to play volleyball that came in a written note that I don't think I was supposed to find but it fell out of her bag or something and I saw it," Alecs said. "It broke my heart but in her note she said this is my passion, my passion is volleyball."
Now there's nothing but gratitude from a gold medalist to her parents, her coaches, her team and her community.