By Madalyn Howitt
Just as she’d been all Olympics, Ottawa’s Vanessa Gilles was impossible to miss in one of the Team Canada’s biggest moments of the entire Games — the women’s soccer team’s gold medal win, watched by 4.4 million Canadians on CBC.
On a team made up of legendary veterans and exciting young talent, Gilles stood out as a confident and consistent defensive player.
“It was a pleasure,” Gilles said of the tournament, speaking over the phone from Bordeaux, France. “That’s the word that pops out to me right away – I had a pleasure playing every game and representing Canada.”
“The environment that we have is so unique with the national team – the support that you feel from everyone really makes it that much easier to take on the stress,” she shared.
“The love that you’re surrounded by in the sport is uncanny. Hearing huge players like Steph [Labbe], [Desiree] Scott, and Christine Sinclair say in a huddle, ‘No matter what happens we love you and we’re proud of each other,’ that support has the power to calm me down even in stressful situations.”
Surprise starring role for rookie
After waiting patiently on the sidelines during the first few matches of the tournament, Gilles wasted no time proving why she was selected for the team once she was moved into the starting lineup in Canada’s third match of the Games against Great Britain.
Strong defensive plays and skilled footwork on the ball proved why she’s a formidable centre back, but it was surprise moments like her game-winning penalty kick against Brazil that cemented her as a breakout star on the team.
“I’m definitely most proud of having stepped up and put myself in a position to take penalty kicks,” said Gilles of her time on the Olympic pitch. “We practised [them] almost every day, but that’s not been one of my strong suits in the past, [so] I think any of my former coaches or teammates were shocked when they saw me walk out for those PKs against Brazil or against Sweden.”
One of those former coaches is Joé Fournier, Gilles’s coach from her days at Louis-Riel high school.
“I was surprised she was picked, but not surprised she scored,” Fournier laughed, recalling her game-winning kick against Brazil. “She’s really strong mentally and has such an easygoing personality. She can adapt to tough situations, and she’s also an extremely hard worker, so being in that situation for the PK I think that she had the right mindset and the right attitude.”
Fournier kept in touch with Gilles throughout the Olympic tournament and never missed a moment of the Games. “The most important part of my job is to see my students achieve their goals,” he said, “but watching [the gold medal game] was the first time in my life I watched a student reach their goal in real time.”
Sinclair & co. visited a teenaged Gilles after London 2012
Fournier recalled the time when four members of Canada’s 2012 bronze medal winning team visited Louis-Riel, and a young Gilles brushed shoulders with Olympians.
“It’s just amazing to say that there’s a former student from our high school that is now an Olympic champion. It’s unbelievable,” he said.
“I don’t remember anything specific [they said], probably because I was so starstruck,” laughed Gilles, looking at the pictures of her teenage self next to the soccer legends. She does however remember the feeling of meeting them and the impact they had on her own goals in the sport. “I remember standing beside Sinclair, Karina LeBlanc, Diana Matheson and Rhian Wilkinson and [realizing] that these are the players that I want to follow,” she said.
In particular, Gilles’s future teammate Sinclair made an impact on the young player.
“She’s one of the best captains I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing under. You want to make her proud and to do right by her,” Gilles said. “I remember the power that her words had on the whole room back at my high school and comparing it to the power that her words have in a huddle before going out to the field is just incredible.”
“It speaks volumes to the power of these Olympic medals,” continued the former FC Capital United (now Ottawa TFC) club player. “That bronze medal meant so much to so many, and I really hope that this gold medal will have the same effect and inspire people like me in high school. Looking back at those pictures reminds me that this medal belongs to so much more than just the people who are in Tokyo,” she added.
Only 25-years-old, Gilles speaks with a level of self-assurance that seems more mature than her age, and she takes care to acknowledge all the people who worked hard to make her Olympic experience the best it could be.
“I don’t think they get enough credit, but our staff was just incredible, the coaches, the physio and medical staff, the management. We were always well taken care of,” she said.
And while she’s a serious competitor, Gilles said she made sure to have as much fun as possible in Japan. Special recognition was given by Gilles to her teammate Jessie Fleming, who organized things like team origami-making sessions, movie nights, and Mario Kart matches to keep everyone’s spirits light during the tournament.
“Our staff did an amazing job as well of incorporating team bonding moments and everybody did an amazing job of always coming down to smile and at the end of the day.
It was a pleasure to have been a part of this group to have had those moments.”
Home for a rest in mid-September
Gilles will have to wait a bit longer to celebrate her gold medal on home turf; she flew back to France immediately after the Olympics and soon after that flew to Sweden for a Champions League tournament. She plans to touch down in Ottawa in mid-September for a much-deserved rest, however.
“Ottawa is just such an amazing city for me,” she said. “Walking down Bank Street, getting a Beavertail hanging around Rideau. Those little moments with my friends and family will mean the world to me.”
And what would Ottawa’s Olympic champion say to any soccer students at Louis-Riel and beyond?
“Surround yourself with amazing people and work the best you can, but remember to enjoy the journey,” she said, “When you’re done everything, that’s what you’re going to look back on.”
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