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Ottawa at the Olympics Final Day: An unforgettable Games

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This article was first sent to subscribers of the Ottawa at the Olympics Daily Newsletter. Sign up to receive our free newsletter, which will feature daily Ottawa at the Paralympics coverage, here.

By Dan Plouffe, Madalyn Howitt, Martin Cleary, Kieran Heffernan & Charlie Pinkerton

Decathlon gold medalist Damian Warner carried the Canadian flag into the Olympic Stadium for this morning’s Closing Ceremonies, and with that, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games officially came to a close, one year later than anticipated.

It’s certainly been an unforgettable journey for all of the 17 local Olympics who made it to Tokyo. From improvised milk-jug weights in mom and dad’s basement, to winter paddling through hail and slush from a 2-foot snow dump, the pandemic pushed these athletes like never before.

But had the Olympics gone forward as originally scheduled, our biggest story from a local perspective would not have occurred.

Vanessa Gilles. Photo: Canada Soccer

National women’s soccer team player Vanessa Gilles was likely slated to be an alternate for coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller’s 2020 Games lineup. But he departed, Bev Priestman came in, and Gilles seized every opportunity to earn the trust of her new coach, and was not only selected for the team, she’d won a starting centre-back role come the playoff round.

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The 25-year-old Olympic rookie defender was also entrusted to take Canada’s final penalty kick in a do-or-die shootout with Brazil in the quarter-finals, and she nailed it for the game-winner.

We’ve mentioned it several times in the Sports Pages‘ Ottawa at the Olympics coverage (and really, it becomes no less amazing), but this is a player who only took up soccer at Louis-Riel high school and then joined an FC Capital United (now Ottawa TFC) club “willing to take me on as a 15-year-old who couldn’t pass the ball in a straight line,” Gilles reflected in an interview with the Sports Pages on her journey to Team Canada.

Within 11 appearances for Canada internationally, she’s now reached the summit of women’s soccer, contributing to our country’s two biggest victories in the sport ever. First, there was Canada’s first victory over USA in 20 years in the semi-finals, to avenge the infamous 2012 defeat:

And then she helped Canada to its first-ever team sport gold medal at the Summer Olympics with an agonizing penalty-kicks heart-stopper over Sweden in the final:

That was a tough one to match, but several other Ottawa athletes had outstanding performances at the Games as well, and landed within a short step of the podium.

Alicia Brown and her fellow Canadian relay runners exceeded expectations and finished on the heels of Jamaica for the final podium position in the women’s 4×400 metres.

Track cyclist Ariane Bonhomme stepped in for the Canadian women’s team pursuit squad and helped them earn a race for the bronze medal, though they also ultimately took fourth.

Fellow track cyclists Derek Gee and Vincent De Haître pushed Canada to its best performance in the men’s team pursuit since 1932, finishing fifth.

After making the quarter-finals in individual competition, Kelleigh Ryan made her first and likely final Olympic appearance at age 34 and contributed to Canada’s best-ever women’s team foil result at a global championship, placing fifth.

Shortly after the Olympic flame was lit, Mike Woods reached the summit of Mount Fuji with the nine strongest survivors out of 130 entrants in the men’s cycling road race, eventually finishing in fifth, just a couple pedal strokes away from the silver medal.

If you’d like to look back in greater detail on our local athletes’ Olympic experiences, you can track down all our coverage on our Ottawa at the Olympics Central webpage.

Paralympics Preview

The Closing Ceremony to the Tokyo Olympics marks the 16-day countdown to the Opening Ceremony of the Paralympic Games, which is when the Sports Pages will resume daily Tokyo Games coverage.

In the meantime, we’ll be working on telling you about the road to Tokyo for our local Paralympians, who will all be profiled in our upcoming Ottawa at the Paralympics special edition of the Ottawa Sports Pages newspaper.

Patrice Dagenais. File photo

We’ll be following local Paralympians in athletics, canoe-kayak, cycling, equestrian, goalball, judo, rowing, rugby, swimming and volleyball. The local crew will be a veteran bunch, led by past Paralympic medalists Andrew Todd (rowing) and Team Canada wheelchair rugby captain Patrice Dagenais.

The lone Paralympic rookie will be Brianna Hennessy, whose track to Tokyo was about as unlikely as they come. Hennessy was left tetraplegic and with chronic pain after a cab driver struck her in 2014 while at a work conference in Toronto.

In an interview with the Sports Pages’ Charlie Pinkerton before her Paralympic qualifying competition, the 36-year-old credited sports for teaching her the resiliency she required to get through rehab. Hennessy then rediscovered her love for sport, first in wheelchair rugby, and now through canoe-kayak, which she only took up at the end of last summer, but managed to qualify for the Games.

The Sports Pages team is looking forward to bringing you many more stories like this soon before the Paralympics, and throughout the Games as we’ll again return with daily coverage on Ottawa athletes.

This article was first sent to subscribers of the Ottawa at the Olympics Daily Newsletter. Sign up to receive our free newsletter, which will feature daily Ottawa at the Paralympics coverage, here.

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