If 2021 was clearly rising star Alessandro Michieletto's year, can 2022 be Aleksandar Nikolov's? A lot will depend on his performances at the FIVB Volleyball Men’s World Championship and, as volleyball is a team sport, not only on how well the 18-year-old prodigy plays, but also on the results Bulgaria achieve as a squad.

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In a way, Aleks has had a celebrity status in Bulgaria since he was born. He is the first child of star opposite Vladimir Nikolov and wife Maya, also a former volleyballer. But now as a grown-up man, obviously with lots of volleyball in his genes, Nikolov junior has started pulling away from the shadow of his legendary father and creating a name for himself.

“I am not just the son of Vlado Nikolov. I am Aleksandar Nikolov!” he recently said in an interview.

Aleks Nikolov has already shown his amazing talent at various age-category competitions as well as in USA’s collegiate championship.

In 2019, he and his Bulgarian teammates earned silver at the CEV U17 European Championship, with Aleks shining as the second best server of the competition. The following year they reached the semifinals of the U18 continental championship, where Nikolov was the third best scorer.

The 2.05m-tall outside hitter led the Lion Cubs to silver at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball Boys’ U19 World Championship and was named on the Dream Team of the tournament. He made runner-up in three individual rankings – for best scorers, best attackers and best servers. Despite his younger age, he was also the second best server, the fourth best scorer and the fourth best receiver at the U21 World Championship last year, when Bulgaria finished sixth.

Nikolov spent the first season of his club career at Levski Sofia, but as soon as he graduated from high school, he went on to study and play at Long Beach State University in the United States on a full scholarship. In a brilliant first season in the NCAA, he was named 2022 National Player of the Year as the first-ever freshman to win the award, and took silver with the team.

In January 2021, Nikolov made his official debut with the men’s national team as he came in as a sub during EuroVolley qualification matches, but he first appeared as a full-fledged starter for the Lions during this year’s Volleyball Nations League and impressed with his performance at the highest level. He led Bulgaria in scoring and was the sixth best point-maker and the sixth best attacker of the Preliminary Phase.

Nikolov’s individual performance in the VNL was solid enough to earn him a professional contract with one of the world’s best clubs, Italian champions and FIVB Volleyball Club World Championship silver medallists Cucine Lube Civitanova, who got his signature for the next three seasons with an offer tempting enough to prompt him to interrupt his college education at Long Beach.

But before pursuing his professional career in the Italian SuperLega, the Bulgarian rising star has one more important job to do with the national team this season and that is at the World Championship currently taking place in Poland and Slovenia. Despite his young age, Nikolov will be one of the players Bulgaria will rely a lot on to lead the team at the most important competition of the year.

It may seem that the team’s 14th place on a 2-10 win-loss record in VNL 2022 cannot be a satisfactory result for a volleyball power like Bulgaria, but the young squad actually achieved what they set out to do and that was to preserve their spot in the competition for next season.

The World Championship, however, is another story. Reinforced by experienced star players like opposite Tsvetan Sokolov and outside hitter Todor Skrimov, Bulgaria will arrive in Poland with the ambition to attain a much better result. And Aleks Nikolov, whose newly gained confidence as a player will now be backed up by confidence in what the team as a whole can achieve, can be expected to shine even brighter.

Aleksandar Nikolov leads Bulgaria to first VNL 2022 win, over Iran

Of course, there is always the risk that the sudden rise to stardom may play tricks on the 18-year-old, but luckily there are no signs of that at this point. Plus, there is always Aleks’s dad Vlado Nikolov and Bulgaria’s head coach Nikolay Jeliazkov, both with enough experience as players to help steer the youngster, technically and mentally, up the right path to success.

In addition to being a very talented athlete, the young Bulgarian is known to be a hard worker in training, always aiming high. And the goals he is setting for himself are probably even higher than the burden of expectations the rest of the world now puts on his shoulders.

“My personal expectations for the World Championship are high,” Aleks Nikolov told Volleyball World. “This is the standard I have always held myself accountable to. I hope for me and my team to put up a world-class performance and earn a place on the podium!”

Bulgaria opened their World Championship Pool C campaign in Katowice with a match against co-hosts and defending champs Poland. They take on USA on August 28 and Mexico on August 30.