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Ottawa at the Olympics Day 8: Fearless Olympic rookie Vanessa Gilles scores winning soccer PK

By Madalyn Howitt, Martin Cleary & Dan Plouffe

Ottawa’s Vanessa Gilles announced her arrival as a key figure in international women’s soccer early this morning Ottawa time. Gilles not only started in Canada’s Olympic quarter-final against Brazil, but was chosen to take her team’s final penalty kick, which gave the Canadians the win and a spot in the semi-finals.

After no goals were scored in regulation or extra time, the match went to a penalty-kicks shootout. Soccer’s all-time international leading scorer Christine Sinclair took the first kick but was stopped. Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé responded with a save on the fourth kick from Brazil, setting the stage for centre-back defender Gilles to step up and fire home the most confident penalty kick of the bunch. Labbé then backed her right up and made the winning save on Brazil’s final kick.

“I was just happy to be able to be there for Sinclair and Canada when it mattered most,” Gilles said after the game. You can see Gilles’s game-winning goal here and read more about the match from CBC Sports.

Gilles was front-and-centre throughout Canada’s do-or-die quarter-final with Brazil, responsible for both sides’ best chances in scoreless regulation play. So far, the Olympic rookie has performed well every time she’s been called upon by Team Canada coach Bev Priestman, which included her first start in Canada’s last group stage game against Great Britain. The 25-year-old Louis-Riel high school grad then took over Shelina Zakorsky’s usual place in the starting lineup with everything on the line in an elimination game.

This morning’s performance signals that Gilles will likely be a regular key contributor for Team Canada in these Olympics and beyond, and showcases her ascent to the peak of women’s soccer (which has come relatively quickly). The former tennis player only took up soccer at age 15 at Louis-Riel and later joined FC Capital United (now Ottawa TFC) even though she “couldn’t pass the ball in a straight line,” she recalled, reflecting on her journey to Team Canada in this Sports Pages story.

Screenshot of CBC broadcast of Vanessa Gilles preparing for her decisive penalty kick.

Her coach at Louis Riel, Joé Fournier, was watching the game and was struck by how calm and focused Gilles looked before the enormous penalty kick.

“The camera focused on her face, just before she took the shot, and you could see her doing deep breathing and relaxing herself,” he said. “She was focusing. When I saw that, I was very confident. For me, it really shows her mental strength.”

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Early birds can wake up in the wee hours of Monday morning to watch Gilles and Team Canada play their semi-final game at 4 a.m. ET on August 2nd. Canada will play the United States in a rematch of the thrilling London 2012 semi-final.

Bishop falls just shy of next round in women’s 800 m

Melissa Bishop-Nriagu competing at the 2017 Canadian Championships in Ottawa. Photo: Steve Kingsman

The Tokyo Games will not be the return to glory that fans of Melissa Bishop-Nriagu were hoping for. The Ottawa Lions runner was eliminated after the first round of the women’s 800m event.

After jostling on the inside lane before the final stretch, Bishop-Nriagu finished with a time of 2:02:11 and 4th place in Heat 3, missing the top-3 position that would have given her a spot in the semi-finals. She finished 28th overall.

Fans who were disappointed to see Bishop-Nriagu eliminated so early in her event received a heartfelt message from her on social media.

“You guys, I’m OK!” she shared in an Instagram post early Friday morning. “Of course, I’m disappointed, I’ve cried a lot of tears today. But I’m also really proud.”

A 3x Olympian, a Canadian record holder and now a new mother, Bishop-Nriagu returned to competition with an eye on improving her 4th-place finish from Rio 2016. She admitted in her post that she’s taken risks this year and was hoping they would pay off on the big stage of the Olympics.

“As of 7 days ago, I could have confidently told you that I was PB form and in the hunt for a medal,” she said, “but sport often has ways of breaking your heart. One week ago, I hurt my hamstring pretty badly. I didn’t know if I could line up today. We did everything possible to get me there, but it wasn’t enough.”

Speaking candidly, Bishop-Nriagu shared that it was difficult watching her competitors slip past her on the track.

“I’ve never been so jealous watching athletes run so freely, wishing I could be healthy too. Why me? Why before the games?” she asked. “Turns out I regret none of what we did to prep for this. I wouldn’t have changed a single thing Trent and I did this entire year.”

She went on to thank fans for the outpouring of support she’s received and vowed this wouldn’t be the last time her home country will see her compete.

“We can’t control everything, but I can control how I walk away from this,” she added. “I’m a proud Canadian. I will be back.”

Check out CBC Sports for a detailed recap of the 800 m event.

Other Ottawa athletes in action on Day 8:

A medal is no longer in the cards for Pam Buisa and Canada’s women’s rugby sevens team. Canada was trounced 31-0 by France in its final pool contest and missed out on a place in the quarter-finals by tiebreaker. Canada then blasted Brazil 45-0 in a placement match and will now take on Kenya for 9th place.

Canada won gold in the rowing women’s eight, and there was a small Ottawa connection in the boat: Christine Roper was registered through the Ottawa Rowing Club while she was based abroad before joining the national team full-time in Victoria.

Day 9 Preview: Joanna Brown looking for redemption in mixed relay triathlon

Joanna Brown will have a shot at redemption after a frustrating finish to her individual triathlon earlier this week, which saw her lapped in the cycling portion after being plagued with two flat tires.

Brown will now compete in the mixed relay triathlon along with 15th-place women’s triathlon finisher Amélie Kretz of Ste-Therese, Que., Matthew Sharpe of Campbell River, B.C. and newcomer Alexis Lepage of Gatineau, Que., who is replacing the injured Tyler Mislawchuk.

The race will air at the very reasonable hour of 6:30 p.m. ET tonight.

Pam Buisa and the Canadian women’s rugby sevens team will play their final match of the Olympic tournament against Kenya at 8:30 p.m. ET. Canada will finish 9th or 10th in the final standings depending on the outcome of the match.

All Ottawa Olympians’ schedules can be found here.

VIEW FROM TOKYO: Paul ApSimon proud to see fencing shine with Team Canada

Paul ApSimon. File photo

Canada’s women’s fencing team are celebrating a fifth-place finish after handily defeating Hungary and Japan in the placement rounds. It’s not the medal finished they had hoped for, but coach Paul ApSimon of Ottawa shared that the team is feeling accomplished, nonetheless.

“That was our own little side victory, beating Hungary and Japan,” he said. “It was satisfying because we came in ranked six and we ended up not only beating Japan but finishing fifth, something that we had failed to do the last three years that World Championship. We’re quite proud of that result.”

Looking back at Canada’s first match against favoured France in the quarter-finals, ApSimon said their strategy came down to some observation and number-crunching.

“Our whole day was based around the objective to beat France, so we pulled out all the stops,” he said. That included trying to work around a peculiar substitution rule that only exists at the Olympics. ApSimon and the team made the decision to put Ottawa’s Kelleigh Ryan in early in the match, but when she didn’t return for another bout, some viewers wondered if an injury kept Ryan from continuing. Turns out a strategic play was the reason why.

“In every other competition you’re allowed to substitute athletes in and out throughout the day, but at the Olympics, you can only do one substitution in the day,” explained ApSimon, adding that the Olympics have a quota on the overall number of athletes that can compete in a discipline. “We had a game plan at the beginning to have Kelleigh in the first bout [against France]. The unfortunate part is that once we do that substitution, you can’t put an athlete back in.”

Kelleigh Ryan. File photo

Ryan had earned Canada’s best finish in the individual women’s foil event days earlier, placing 8th.

“It was a tough decision, but our objective was to do everything we could to win the quarter-final,” he explained, adding, “I think that our girls were the most resilient of the teams that did not move on past quarter-finals.”

Despite that unique rule preventing Ryan from having another go on the piste, ApSimon had nothing but praise for the fencer he’s coached for 20 years.

“She was perfect. She has her best competition ever here, and she was proud of the job she did. She understood the reasoning [for the substitution] and was a great support on the bench for the rest of the day,” ApSimon underlined, noting that Ryan has registered for a master’s in human kinetics with the intention of eventually joining the coaching side of the sport and help to give back to young fencers.

As for ApSimon, he expects we’ll be seeing him again in Paris in 2024 and is looking forward to seeing how much his athletes grow.

“I started in 2009 with this team,” noted the Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Coaching Achievement honouree. “They were a team that didn’t have a lot of structure and we just put in a program where we did the patches and gave them opportunities to succeed, and they took advantage of it. They’ve worked incredibly hard and made a lot of tough decisions that have allowed them to really focus on fencing as professionals, and we’ve moved up in the world ranking consistently in the last 10 years.

“We know we can beat everybody, now we just have to put it all together so that we have a good shot at performing on the podium in Paris.”

This article was first sent to subscribers of the Ottawa at the Olympics Daily Newsletter. Sign up to receive it, for free, here.

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