Tennis shoes to soccer cleats: Vanessa Gilles’ unique journey to Olympic gold

Olympic gold made picking soccer over tennis sweeter for Canadian

Vanessa Gilles
Vanessa Gilles runs the ball up the field at TD Place in her hometown of Ottawa during the first game of the Celebration Tour.  @VanessaGilles/Twitter

Olympic gold medallist Vanessa Gilles was 20 years old when she watched the Canadian national women’s soccer team play Brazil at TD Place in her hometown of Ottawa. In 2016. Janine Beckie scored a goal in added time to give the Canada a 1-0 victory in the friendly match.

Gilles smiled as she recalled being in the stands that day.

“I remember sitting in TD Place, watching Canada play Brazil and saying to myself, and my teammates at the time as well, ‘Crap I want to be on that field. I want to wear that jersey. I want to celebrate with them,’” Gilles said during a recent Canada Soccer press conference.

Five years later, she was back at TD Place, this time as a player celebrating Canada’s 5-1 win over New Zealand on Oct. 23 in the first match of the team’s Celebration Tour. Gilles, now 25, was a part of Canada’s historic run to a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in August, scoring the game-winning penalty kick in the quarter-finals against Brazil and playing a key role on defence throughout the tournament.

The path to the top of her sport in Canada hasn’t exactly been conventional for the young star.

It didn’t take long for Gilles, front, to show her talents on the pitch.

‘I don’t want to play tennis anymore’

Gilles didn’t start playing until she was 16 years old.

Her first sport was tennis. As a pre-teen, she picked up a racket for the first time while her family was living in Shanghai and continued after they moved to Canada when she was 12, where she made nationals.

“She did quite well, but right after the nationals she told me, ‘I don’t want to play tennis anymore,’” recalled her mother, Josie Castelli-Gilles.

“Why don’t you want to play?” Castelli-Gilles had asked her daughter.

“I hate it,” Gilles responded.

Having enrolled Gilles in a sports study program at Louis-Riel high school, where the tennis coach had already designed an entire training program for Gilles, Castelli-Gilles tried to discourage her daughter from quitting.

“I told her to just try it for at least three months, like ‘till Christmas,’ and she didn’t really want to but I kind of forced her to do it.”

Gilles became “very disruptive” in the tennis group and was benched, her mother says. Eventually, the coach told Castelli-Gilles that Gilles really didn’t want to be in the program.

“So I said, ‘Okay, let’s save our money and our time,’” said Castelli-Gilles. “I pulled her out and she wanted to play soccer. I told her, ‘You do it on your own. I did everything for tennis. You do this on your own.’”

She was phenomenal

Entering Grade 10, Gilles had never touched a soccer ball in her life. She told the high school soccer coach, Joé Fournier, if she could join the team to be with her friends. Fournier was hesitant at first, not because of Gilles’ lack of soccer experience, but because he was worried she was only there for the social aspect and would distract the other players.

Eventually he offered her a tryout as a goalkeeper, which Gilles accepted.

By the end of her trial, everyone was dumbfounded.

“She was phenomenal,” said Fournier. “Like, unbelievable.”

The goalkeeper coach at that point was working with Ontario’s provincial program. After two weeks of training Gilles with Louis-Riel, the coach told Fournier, “This girl could be on the provincial team. Like, now.”

It was exciting for the team, who didn’t have anyone for the position, and suddenly, they had a provincial-calibre goalkeeper from straight off the tennis court.

The following week, however, Gilles admitted she wasn’t happy in net and was only playing there because she felt like that’s what everyone else wanted her to do. What she really wanted was more touches on the ball.

Fournier obliged, assigning her to centre back. She was good for the position because of her physicality, but had a lot of catching up to do in terms of technical skills on the ball.

“She couldn’t pass even if her life depended on it,” said Fournier.

Fellow centre back Alexie Morin-Holland, who went on to play university soccer for the Ottawa Gee-Gees, took Gilles under her wing and helped her learn the position. Years later, when Gilles came back to visit Louis Riel after making the national team, a student asked her to name her role model. Gilles’ answer was Morin-Holland.

“She knew what her place was on the team,” said Fournier. “Even though she was an unbelievable athlete she knew she wasn’t at the same standards as those girls at that point … She grew and she learned from those girls so much.”

Gilles’ natural athletic talent was obvious, but it was her abilities to learn quickly and not take soccer too seriously that led to success.

“She was extremely focused, but it wasn’t a question of do or die,” he said. “Vanessa just enjoys life. Like, she’s a big joker, like a goof. But at the same time she’s extremely respectful, so she was a good listener, a quick learner because she put into practice what we were trying to help her with, so that’s I think that’s why she progressed.”

During that first year of playing, Gilles helped Louis-Riel to the high school provincial championship. From there her career took off. Within the next two years, she went on to join club soccer and win a league title, capture a bronze medal with Team Ontario at the 2013 Canada Summer Games, get a full-ride scholarship to the University of Cincinnati and, eventually, pursue the professional route.

‘She did a lot on her own’

After concluding a heavily accoladed university career that included 2017 American Athletic Conference Co-Defender of the Year, Gilles came home for the holidays and had a conversation with her mother about the next chapter, which, according to Castelli-Gilles, went something along the lines of:

“I’m going to Cyprus,” said Gilles, who had signed with Apollon Ladies FC of the Cypriot First Division.  

“How did you get that?” asked her mother.

“My agent.”

“What agent?”

“I have an agent now,” Gilles said.

“Oh my God,” Castelli-Gilles said in disbelief.

It had taken a few calls and some nudging from Gilles to have her agent commit, but if it isn’t clear by now, Gilles knows how to get anything she sets her mind to.   

She made 11 appearances with Apollon in 2018, scoring 10 goals, before joining FC Girondins de Bordeaux the same year. Fifty-nine appearances and three goals later with Bordeaux, she still plays on the team in D1 Féminine.

“She did a lot,” said Castelli-Gilles, reflecting on the path Gilles had carved for herself. “For soccer, she did a lot on her own.”

‘Vanessa is an absolute legend in Ottawa’

Gilles played her first official game with the Canadian national team on Nov. 10, 2019 in a 3-0 win against New Zealand at the 2019 Yongchuan International Tournament.

Since then, she’s made 11 appearances. One of her most notable moments was when she scored Canada’s fifth and final penalty kick against Brazil in the Tokyo 2020 quarter-final that pushed them to the semifinals.

Josie Castelli-Gilles, Olympic gold medallist Vanessa Gilles mother, discusses her daughter’s penalty kick against Brazil in the Tokyo 2020 quarter-final.

The Canadians celebrated their win over Brazil just as they had during that friendly against them in 2016, only this time Gilles wasn’t watching from the stands; she was the reason they had won.

“I think what we’re quickly learning is Vanessa is an absolute legend in Ottawa,” said Canada head coach Bev Priestman. “This city is so, so proud of Vanessa’s achievements … She’s an absolute and will do anything to keep a clean sheet and do whatever it takes to win and I think they’re attributes loved by all Canadians.”

On Oct. 23, Canada played New Zealand, the team Gilles competed against in her first cap for Canada. On top of that, they were at TD Place, where she realized how badly she wanted to play for the national team.

“Now me being able to play on that field, doing exactly what I wanted to do is kind of full circle for me,” said Gilles, “but at the same time I think about that moment (the celebration of Beckie’s goal in 2016) and I think about other girls sitting in the seats I was watching us play.

“My number one thing that’s important to me is inspiring the youth, having that impact on the players who are sitting in those seats … I can’t stress enough the impact that had on my career and my ambitions and seeing other people and players in that position is really cool.”

Fournier surprised his six-year-old daughter, Nève, with tickets to the match. Her favourite players are Gilles and Beckie.

He also brought Nève to Montréal last week for the second game of the Celebration Tour.

Gilles was born in Montréal. The full circles just keep happening.

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Posted: Nov 3 2021 9:10 am
Filed under: Features Soccer