Beach Pro Tour - News

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Nicolai and Cottafava have been very successful since they became partners, in 2022

The qualification period for the Paris Olympics will be on until June 9, at the conclusion of next week’s Volleyball World Beach Tour Elite16 event in Ostrava, Czechia, but Italians Paolo Nicolai and Samuele Cottafava are virtually guaranteed in the Games.

Sitting in ninth place in the FIVB Olympic Rankings with 8,940 points, the Italians were confirmed a few weeks ago by their country’s National Federation as one of their representatives in Paris, where they will experience the most intense moments of what has been a successful union over the last two and a half years.

The Paris Games will be the first for the 25-year-old Cottafava and the fourth for the 35-year-old Nicolai, who took silver at the Rio 2016 Olympics and is one of just four men’s players who competed in London 2012 to be actively fighting for a spot in Paris.

Nicolai first appeared as one of the most promising Italian beach volleyball players ever, winning back-to-back U21 world titles in 2007 and 2008, and his career certainly progressed accordingly, as, after 17 seasons competing internationally, he has Olympic and World Championship medals among his 29 international podium appearances, as well as three European titles.

Since 2022, the Italian legend has been experiencing something new as, after 11 successful seasons with longtime partner Daniele Lupo, he picked up a promising 22-year-old in Cottafava and the two climbed the World Rankings to get to Paris as real medal contenders after making six podium appearances over the last two and a half years, including their victory at the Jurmala Elite16 in 2022.

We got to chat with Nicolai about his career, his success with Cottafava and his aspirations for Paris 2024 and beyond in an exclusive Volleyball World interview.

Volleyball World: A few weeks ago, Samuele and you were confirmed by the Italian Federation as one of their teams for Paris 2024. How did you receive the news of your fourth Olympic appearance?

Nicolai: I was at home and our team manager sent us a message saying that. It was not a big surprise because we knew that the chances were really high at that point, but the feeling was still really good.

VW: Besides you, only three other players who competed in your first Olympics, London 2012, remain active and with a real shot at qualifying – Spain’s Pablo Herrera and Adrián Gavira and Austria’s Alexander Horst. How does it feel to look back and notice that you are one of just a few players who have been able to remain as part of the elite of the sport for more than a decade? What do you think were the main factors to make it possible?

Nicolai: It makes me feel really proud and happy. I always tried to be a good learner and to be the best version of myself every day. I believe that the people who shared this journey with me have a big role in that trajectory too.

VW: Qualifying must have felt different this time as you were with a new partner. How did the last two and half years with Samuele go? What would you say were the team's best moments in the period? Did the team progress to the level you expected or do you still believe it could be better?

Nicolai: It felt different because Samuele and the entire team were looking to qualify for the Olympic Games for the first time. So it made me feel all the little things that I felt before London 2012 again, now being more aware of them. I’m really satisfied with the journey with Samuele as we qualified for the Beach Pro Tour Finals in both seasons, we won an Elite16 event and several other medals and got to beat many of the world’s top teams. And all that after starting from the qualifier in our first Challenge event. We are working hard to reach even better results, but we are proud of our path.

VW: Speaking of your partner, how much do you think Samuele developed over these last two years? Did you expect him to progress so quickly? What are some areas of his game that you can notice a major difference from when you two first got together?

Nicolai: I think that he became more mature as a man and as a player. I’m really grateful for sharing this experience with him. I was sure that he could play at the level of the top players in the world and he shows every day that I was right. We improved our game a lot tournament after tournament.

VW: You two were recently in a training camp in San Diego, where you were able to practice with and play against Andy Benesh and Miles Partain. Why did you decide to make the trip there and what did you accomplish in the period there? How was it to work with potential rivals for a medal at the Olympics?

Nicolai: The training camp in San Diego was very good for both teams. Training at a high level is always important and we had a very good week there. We decided to go there because we were supposed to play in Brasília after the Tepic Elite16 and we were looking for a place to have a good training week before that. We found a great opportunity to work with Andy, Miles and their coach Mike.

VW: How do you see the scenario for your team at the Olympics? Do you see your team among the favorites to win a medal?

Nicolai: I think that we are not among the favorites, but we can definitely win a medal. The level is very high but if we are able to play at our best, we will have chances.

VW: With four Olympics, one Olympic medal, two at the World Championships and several more on the Beach Pro Tour, you are often considered the best Italian player ever. Is this something you think about? Did you somehow consider this could happen when you first started?

Nicolai: It is a privilege and, of course, something that I’m really proud of. My dream when I started was being the best player in the world and I still work every day to become that player.

VW: We now see several blockers who can serve and set at a high level in international beach volleyball, but that wasn't the case when you first started. You, however, always had these skills as a big part of your game. Did you anticipate this could be where beach volleyball was going or was it more of developing the skills you thought could help you do well?

Nicolai: As I said, when I started, I would like to become the best player in the world, so I tried to do what the best player in the world did. Phil Dalhausser was the best player in that period and he did all these things in an awesome way. Like in every sport, the game has evolved and if you want to continue among the best, you have to adapt. Setting gives you a chance to change timing and spacing, while serving well can put the other team in a more difficult position to score. So, I always thought that these were two of the most important skills in the sport.

VW: Do you still have any major goals or dreams to accomplish in the sport?

Nicolai: I would like to win another medal in one of the biggest tournaments, either the Olympics or the World Championships.

VW: What are your plans for after Paris? Do you plan on continuing to play?

Nicolai: Right now, all the plans I made are until the last Elite16 event of the year. And then I will see what to do. I would certainly like to become a coach one day, but I’ll make the decision about my future after this season.