The Future List: Olympic gold medalist Vanessa Gilles on the power of sports and what it takes to win
People & Places

The Future List: Olympic gold medalist Vanessa Gilles on the power of sports and what it takes to win

When Vanessa Gilles started competitive soccer at 16, she couldn’t even kick the ball straight. “I couldn’t do much but toe-poke it out of bounds or maybe tackle or head the ball, and that was it,” she recalls. By 25, she was in Tokyo at her first Olympic Games, winning gold as centre back and scoring the penalty that took Canada into the semifinals. She had already made her professional debut by then, signing with Apollon Football Club of Cyprus four years earlier, and was on the roster with Girondins de Bordeaux in France.

After her Olympic victory, Gilles was back home in Ottawa as Mayor Jim Watson proclaimed September 14 Vanessa Gilles Day. It was part of a whirlwind homecoming that saw her honoured at an Ottawa Redblacks game, where her gold medal penalties were broadcast on the big screen.

“That was really, really cool,” she said during an interview in Confederation Park. Dressed in sneakers and the Adidas stripes of her sponsor, Gilles visited city hall as part of the festivities, dropping off one of her gold medal game jerseys for Watson. There was more celebration this fall when Canada Soccer announced the national women’s team would play against New Zealand at TD Place Stadium at Lansdowne in October.

It has been Gilles’ dream to play at Lansdowne. In 2015, she saw the Canadian team compete in the FIFA Women’s World Cup at TD Place. “I was sitting in the stands, and I remember watching that game and being like, ‘I want to be there. I want to play for them.’ ”

Before she was known as an Olympian, Vanessa Gilles spoke at the United Nations to promote equity in sports. She fought depression in high school and found her solution in soccer. Photo by Christian Lalonde

Now she is. And as remarkable as her success has been, it’s even more so because of what she went through to get here, including battling depression in high school. Gilles was born in Châteauguay, Quebec, and went to high school in Blackburn Hamlet. But she spent her first year in Vietnam and the following 11 years in Shanghai, while her father, Denis, worked in hotel management. Growing up in Asia grounded her. “My best friends were Japanese, Chinese, Moroccan, Argentinian. It taught me to adapt and to be open-minded.”

She played soccer recreationally with her older brother, Sebastien. Her parents kept her brother in soccer and put her in tennis. She started playing competitively at 10 and was eventually devoting eight hours a day to tennis. “I was one of the best in Canada in my age group. Things were going great, but mentally it was not for me.”

She quit, then went through a rough period for two years. Around the same time, her mother, Josie, had breast cancer. She survived, but the period remains a dark one.

“I went through a lot in high school, and I wasn’t necessarily very open about it. I battled through depression. … It was kind of stigmatized at the time. We didn’t have Bell Let’s Talk, you didn’t have these big athletes coming out and talking about it and normalizing it.”

She had always loved soccer and played with her brother for fun. “After quitting tennis, I practically begged the [FC Capital United] coach to take me on right away, and the only spot was goalie, which is why I started there. I didn’t enjoy it and made it clear I wanted to switch.” She was put in as centre back and she has played there since.

Soccer got her on a path to better mental health. “I would train five to six hours a day just to be able to have something to focus on — that’s what really helped me get through.”

Gilles remembers Christine Sinclair and other players from the women’s national team coming to her school after the 2012 Olympics. “They had their bronze medals. I had just started playing soccer, and I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do. I want to be just like them. I want to win a medal.’ ”

Vanessa Gilles (14) reacts with astonished glee as the Canadian Women’s Soccer team wins the gold medal game at the Tokyo Olympics this past summer. Photo by Canada Soccer/Mexsport19

She wasn’t the fastest or the most technical player, but being a multiple-sport athlete turned out to be an advantage. “One of my biggest assets in soccer is reading the ball and reading the trajectory and heading, and a lot has to do with tennis, for sure.”

Her coach at FC Capital United, Raz El-Asmar, who now leads the teenage program at TFC Ottawa, says she is a phenomenal athlete. “She’d be the first one in and the last one out. I know it’s a cliché, but that’s who she was.”

Gilles went to the University of Cincinnati on scholarship, where she started every game over her four years and won a championship.

Christine Rebus, her good friend and former teammate during high school, says Gilles always put in the extra practice. “People used to joke that Gilles didn’t even know how to kick a ball in ninth grade. Give her a couple years, and she’s already the best player on the team, she’s on the provincial team, goes on to the national team.

“No matter what sport she picks up, she’s always the best one at it. This summer we went to go play golf with a couple of our friends, and none of us had ever played before. Of course, Gilles wins. We’re like, ‘Vanessa, can you just be bad at one sport?’ ” Yet she’s humble, always highlighting other people’s achievements, her friend says.

Gilles credits her brother, who is three years older, for a lot of that. “He always has the advice I need, even if it’s annoyingly honest. He was the first person I called after the Olympics. He was at work at a Joey restaurant and I was like, ‘What the heck happened. Is this real?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, you’re an Olympic champion. Enjoy. It’s real life. Okay, I’m going to work.’ Then he hung up on me.”

Outside of soccer, she’s known for her love of board games, dad jokes, and her social conscience. In 2019, she spoke on inequality in women’s soccer at the United Nations as part of the 63rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women. She wants to see a professional women’s league in Canada and a team in Ottawa. She sees an opportunity with Atlético, the men’s team playing at TD Place. “That’s already a huge first step. I think the next step would be to have a women’s pro team there.”

Gilles says she is lucky because she has a French passport — her dad is from Paris — so she was able to play professionally in France. She says Ottawa players face specific hurdles to make a career out of soccer because Toronto is the soccer hub. It’s where the high-level training and scouting happen. But she sees a lot of promise with West Ottawa Soccer Club getting a semi-pro League1 team in 2017 under the leadership of Kristina Kiss, a former women’s national team player who recently moved to Canada Soccer as manager of program development.

She is also optimistic about Ottawa South United Soccer and Ottawa TFC Soccer fostering talent. Ottawa TFC was formed in 2018 after two teams, Gilles’ former club FC Capital United and Cumberland United, partnered with the Major League Soccer team Toronto FC. A year later Ottawa TFC’s U17 girls’ team won two national championships. Still, she says, she would like to see more soccer fields in the city.

As a role model for young athletes, she has some advice. “Believe in yourself. You’re always your best advocate, and nobody’s going to believe in you like you do, and nobody’s going to push you forward unless you do it yourself. Work as if the best is always possible because you never know where you’ll get.” Maybe even the Olympics.