By Ottawa Sports Pages, for Louis-Riel Rebelles
On a picture-perfect autumn afternoon, Louis-Riel high school held a homecoming for Olympic gold medallist Vanessa Gilles and heard all about the latest unbelievable chapter in an already unimaginable soccer story that began there when she was 15.
The now-25-year-old Team Canada defender treated a couple cohorts of students to outdoor Q&A sessions alongside her old coach Joé Fournier.
“It was just surreal,” recounted Fournier, who revelled in watching a former student-athlete’s dream come true live on TV from Tokyo. “Our Rebelles, now they can say that they train and walk in the same hallways as a past Rebelle who’s an Olympic champion. Wow.”
Fournier was proud to present Gilles as a powerful person along with her presence on the pitch, noting the Girondons de Bordeaux pro player spoke at the United Nations in support of change and equality for women’s sports in 2019.
“The gold medal, playing for the national team, that’s amazing, and her speech at the UN was unbelievable too,” signalled Fournier. “It just adds to my pride to also see former students using their values and their voice for the betterment of society.”
For Gilles, coming back to Ottawa made her start to appreciate the scope of what she’s achieved.
“Having these kids coming to see me and thanking me, and who want to be in my shoes in a few years – seeing the impact I can have on kids is really motivating for me,” reflected Gilles, who later played a match in town as part of Team Canada’s celebration tour on Oct. 23.
“I’ve always aspired to be in this role to be able to inspire other people and have an impact on the future generation,” she added. “I used to coach as well, and it’s kind of the same role that coaches have – to inspire and guide youth – and I’m so happy to be able to do that.”
Gilles’ journey to the pinnacle of sport was a highly unlikely one. She had been a provincial-level tennis player before she stepped into organized soccer for the first time in Grade 10.
Gilles sometimes wonders if she hadn’t been part of Louis-Riel’s Sports-Study program – where she got to try a new sport with friends at school and step into a high-performance setting with top-notch coaching from the get-go – would her soccer story have ever even begun?
“It’s an interesting question, and I do think about that,” signalled the 2011 OFSAA champion who remembers having three training sessions a day and being at Louis-Riel from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. most days (and loving it).
“I think what helped me most at Louis-Riel was the practicality – I mean, you’re like 20 metres from the Dome when you go to school,” Gilles underlined. “I don’t know. Maybe I would have switched sports, maybe I would have had the same journey, who knows? But it definitely had a big impact.”
Gilles also received a big shot of inspiration when Christine Sinclair, Karina LeBlanc, Diana Matheson and Rhian Wilkinson came to visit Louis-Riel with their London 2012 bronze medals when she was a teenager.
“I remember I wanted to be like them, I wanted a medal,” recalled the former University of Cincinnati NCAA player. “The fact that Christine is my captain now… I hope that in a few years I’ll be playing with a girl from here too.”
The advice she gave to the next generation of aspiring athletes was simple.
“Work hard, and believe,” Gilles explained. “When I was here at Louis-Riel, I wasn’t thinking about the Olympics, but anything is possible.”