Residence: Bordeaux, France
Local Club: FC Capital United (now Ottawa TFC)
By Madalyn Howitt
To make it to the Olympics, many athletes start training in their chosen sport from a very young age.
Very few make the switch from a sport they excel at to an unfamiliar one at age 16.
Vanessa Gilles, however, is a born athlete, and the somewhat-late-in-life shift from the tennis court to the soccer field is now paying dividends for her. Her impressive physicality and power on the pitch has earned her a well-deserved spot playing with Team Canada’s women’s soccer team at the 2020 Tokyo Games.
It’s also that natural athleticism that is helping Gilles grow and adapt with the changing expectations of the centre-back position and giving her team a leg-up towards grabbing the gold.
“She’s an amazing athlete,” said Joé Fournier, who coached Gilles when she was a student athlete in Louis Riel High School’s sports-study program.
“She’s the strong strongest girl I’ve ever seen in my life, physically. When I watch her play for the national team, I can see that her athleticism is helping her a lot. You can see when she plays, she has this physical presence. She’s not scared of anyone.”
Initially though, Gilles struggled with her footwork when she first took up soccer. “She was really bad with her feet, and she’ll be the first one to admit it,” Fournier said.
Since moving on to the elite levels of the sport, Fournier said Gilles’s ability to stay on the ball has improved enormously.
“Canada has a lot of depth in the centre-back position, but she is doing very well. I’m not surprised [she improved] because she has amazing commitment. Now, she can pass, break the defensive line — I even sent her a text about it,” he said.
Gilles shared that having started soccer pretty late, she’s most proud of having developed technically and tactically enough to be able to keep on the ball and keep up defensively.
“I’ve always known my defensive skills are what have allowed me to push my career to the university, pro and national levels,” she said.
After being named the American Athletics Conference’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player in her sophomore year at the University of Cincinnati, Gilles’s talents on the defensive line continued to develop as she grew more comfortable with her position on the field.
“Over the past few years, we’ve seen a shift in that centre-backs are seeing a lot more of the ball and are dictating [plays] more, which is something that in the past would have scared me,” said Gilles. As the game develops though, players should too, she explained.
“These days to be a good centre-back, you have to have the confidence in your ability to run and contribute to the game on the ball,” Gilles said.
She credits the opportunity to play under Spanish, English and French coaches with different coaching styles for helping her gain the confidence she now has on the field.
“I definitely think [that] confidence on the ball is something that will help us get that gold medal. We’ve always been an incredible team defensively, but I think we have progressed over the years to also become a very tough team to play when we have the ball,” she said.
“Ultimately, our greatest opponent to get that gold medal will be ourselves, for sure.”
Fournier will be watching his former student go for the gold, and said he’s delighted to see Gilles achieving her soccer dreams.
“It’s something that she’s worked really hard for so I’m really happy for her. She has such a great personality [and is] a great ambassador for Canadian soccer,” he said.
“The Olympics are always the main event, so I’m always looking forward to watching these athletes perform at the highest level,” he added. “It’s just so impressive to see all the work all the commitments all the sacrifices that they’ve made to make it there.”
And this year, Gilles will have a new fan cheering her on from Fournier’s couch.
“These are going to be my daughter’s first Olympics that she’s going to be able to interact with. She’s six years old and she’s a big Vanessa fan. She’s always asking when there’s a game, ‘Is Vanessa playing?’,” he laughed, “so we’re really looking forward to see our national team play at the biggest tournament for women’s soccer.”
Gilles, of course, is thrilled to be there.
“I’m most excited about competing on the greatest stage of women’s football at the highest level,” she said, adding that after the Games, she plans to focus on her season with French D1 club FC Girondins de Bordeaux and hopes to go far in the Champions League for the first time in club history.
“Beyond that, who knows – I’m just taking it one day at a time!” she said.
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