By Ottawa Sports Pages, for Ottawa TFC Soccer Club
Ottawa TFC alum Vanessa Gilles introduced herself to much of the international soccer world as she and the Canadian women’s soccer team captured Olympic gold, inspiring a new generation of players in the process.
Mentioning Gilles or Team Canada when young players are feeling down or facing obstacles can serve as a great motivational tool for coach Raz El-Asmar, but the Ottawa TFC Girls Academy Staff Coach makes sure they first understand Gilles’ journey in soccer, long before she drew a nation to the edge of their seats during penalty-kicks pandemonium.
When Gilles stepped into competitive soccer for the first time at age 15, the former tennis player was still very new to the game, having just taken it up at school a year earlier.
“She’s stepping into this huge pool of talent,” recalls El-Asmar, who was coaching one of the top teams in the province when Gilles came to practice for a trial. “But she walks on the field, confident. Her presence struck me right away.”
Gilles was a long way behind other players in her technical soccer skills, but “the work that she put in, I had never seen that before,” El-Asmar notes, “and right from there, she would always be the first one in, last one out.
“She had that fire within her. Combine that with her athletic ability and I said, ‘This is just a matter of time, this kid will do something.’ And sure enough, she did.”
Fuelled by strong defending instincts, Gilles quickly worked her way into her team’s starting lineup, she made Team Ontario for the 2013 Canada Summer Games within a year, and then earned the chance to play varsity soccer at the University of Cincinnati.
“It was unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like this,” underlines El-Asmar, whose team went on to celebrate the capital’s first provincial league division title that season, bolstered by a back end that produced clean sheets in 10 of 14 games.
Gilles was a “game-changer” who locked down the defensive side and helped bring them “from a competitive team to a championship team,” El-Asmar reflects. “And she was also able to contribute to the attack because of her aerial abilities. I mean, she was very dominant.”
El-Asmar credits Gilles’ teammates for their leadership and creating a positive, welcoming environment for a newcomer to enter.
When Gilles first joined Team Canada, she said “there are so many great memories” from her youth soccer career, but that the “family atmosphere” she experienced tops the list.
“I’ve always had that support behind me,” indicated Canada’s #14. “Even now when I go back to Ottawa, we’re still like kids playing kick-around. It’s really cool to have.”
Never losing sight of the fun aspect of the game is a trait that allows Gilles to thrive under pressure, El-Asmar maintains.
“And she’s a very humble person,” he adds. “There’s no arrogance. She doesn’t take anything for granted and she continues to work.”
Gilles shared in an Instagram post that the main sentiment she felt after winning gold was “WHAT A PRIVILEGE.” She also felt grateful that, even though she’d mostly pass the ball out of bounds initially, “I managed to find a club that was willing to work with me, and a great coach who believed in me and who’s still a very good friend to me now.”
El-Asmar is proud to know Gilles treasured her time in youth soccer.
“We’ve always wanted to create a place of trust where players can be themselves on and off the field,” highlights the local coach of 30+ years. “This is kind of their second home, their home away from home.”
Before heading to the Olympics, Gilles went to El-Asmar’s for dinner with his family and several of her past teammates.
Seeing that “sisterhood” bond hold strong many years later was “very special and a lot of fun,” states El-Asmar, who also welcomed Gilles to an online training session during the dog days of lockdown to boost Ottawa TFC players’ spirits.
A BLOSSOMING LEGACY
There is an enduring link between the teammates Gilles played with in her youth career, and the groundbreaking group also has a lasting link to local youth soccer, having helped craft the climate local players currently enjoy. Gilles’ champion team was made up of players from the Cumberland and Capital United clubs that ultimately came together years later as Ottawa TFC.
And while their setup wasn’t the same as the current Ottawa TFC Academy, the amount the players trained eclipsed any other clubs at the time.
“What we really took from it was that we’ve got to train more often, and more often with quality, to give this talent pool a chance,” El-Asmar reflects, and it’s now produced an Academy that’s “second-to-none across the country.”
Watching the Tokyo gold medal match back at home were mystified Ottawa TFC Academy members, including U13 OPDL player Vanessa Ephraim.
“Everyone on the girls’ side went to the clubhouse. We all watched it together and had breakfast. It made it so much more exciting,” recounts Ephraim, who “almost lost my voice” en route to the moment where Canada won gold with its sixth penalty-kicks shooter. “I was screaming, we were all screaming, and just so happy for our country.”
Ephraim says she draws inspiration from Gilles, seeing that she can make it to the top even though she came from a smaller city like Ottawa instead of an American sports factory.
“Some people kind of think that you can’t make it anywhere,” explains the defender who’s playing up an age group. “But knowing that you can get there, it kind of makes me happy, because I know that if I just keep working hard, I can do it.”
And she’ll of course have her coach reminding her of how Gilles’ relentless work ethic allowed her to overcome the challenge of starting late in soccer, how she persisted to continue playing past university when many others might have called it a career, how she eventually got to play pro in a top French league and elevated her game to earn her first Team Canada call-up at any level as a 22-year-old.
And then of course how she ended up in a starring role to give her country its first-ever Summer Olympics team sport gold medal after starting the tournament on the bench.
“What a great story,” El-Asmar underlines. “We certainly talk about it a lot, but it can really be inspirational to anyone, from all walks of life.”