Still Teammates, Still Champs

Former Nittany Lion All-Americans Haleigh Washington and Micha Hancock helped the U.S. women’s volleyball team clinch its first Olympic gold.

US womens volleyball team

Haleigh Washington wasn’t part of the 2016 U.S. women’s volleyball team, so she had to learn from some of her more experienced teammates how different things would be this time. Five years ago, the team arrived at the Rio Olympics with an all-or-nothing fixation on winning gold. They came home disappointed and wearing bronze.

In Tokyo this summer, Washington says, the team played with a collective awareness that “you don’t win or lose a gold medal in one game.” It was a mindset that allowed the U.S. to bounce back from a lopsided loss to Russia in pool play, which Washington ’17 Lib (No. 22, above) figures was just what her team needed. “Sometimes you need adversity,” she says. “We had to learn how to solve problems faster, and we had to learn how to play better team volleyball. And I think the gold medal match was when we were finally playing our best.”

It sure looked that way. A run of four straight wins after that humbling by the Russians carried the U.S. to the final, where they swept longtime rival Brazil 25–21, 25–20, 25–14 to earn the program’s first Olympic gold. Washington, who tallied five kills and three blocks in the final, was named best middle blocker of the tournament.

The U.S. has long been among the best teams in the world—the program had claimed two silver and two bronze medals in the previous seven Games—but until this summer in Tokyo, gold had proven elusive. Maybe the team just needed a couple of Nittany Lions who knew how to win things: Both Washington and backup setter Micha Hancock ’14 Lib (No. 1, above) made their Olympic debuts in Tokyo. Seven years ago, Washington was a freshman and Hancock a senior—and the national player of the year—on the Penn State team that won the 2014 NCAA title; Hancock also led the Lions to the 2013 national championship. Both players were three-time first-team All-Americans.

Today, both are stars on the international pro circuit and currently teammates on Igor Gorgonzola Novara, a club in Italy’s top division. In September—during a too-short break between the end of the Olympics and the start of their pro season in Italy—they had a chance to revisit their shared history when they returned to campus. Medals on display, they received a roaring ovation at Rec Hall between sets of the Nittany Lions’ match with Iowa State.

For Washington, the homecoming was particularly sweet, as it gave her a chance to acknowledge the impact of her former coach, Russ Rose, now in his 43rd season in charge at Penn State. “Russ is as much a part of that gold medal as anyone else,” she says. “He made us into the people and the players that we are. He’s given so much to the game, and I’m so grateful I had the chance to learn from him.”

Since Tokyo, Washington has had plenty of time to ponder the people and experiences that helped make her and Hancock Olympic champions. Now, she’s focused on the chance to do it again: The 2024 Games are less than three years away. Washington shares an interaction she had with national team coach Karch Kiraly—a U.S. volleyball legend who won three Olympic gold medals as a player—shortly after they clinched gold in Tokyo: “He said, ‘Yeah, one is really great, but two is even better,’” Washington says. “I love that even while you’re celebrating, literally the same day, you can still be hungry for more.”