Almost two months out from Tokyo 2020, Vanessa Gilles and Team Canada have just finished a week-long Celebration Tour at the end of October, one that included a friendly match against New Zealand at TD Place, only after being handed a key to the city by Mayor Watson.
It’s the first time the team has been and played together since Tokyo 2020, where they grabbed Gold in a shoot-out against Sweden.
Vanessa, who was born in Montreal and lived in Shanghai before moving to Ottawa at the age of 12, still remembers sitting longingly in the stands at Lansdowne some 10 years ago, when Canada played Brazil.
Though it was just a short 10 years ago for the now 25-year-old, it was only at this time that Vanessa started playing soccer. It wasn’t until the age of 16 that she was officially on any team. But from there, Vanessa has been a rising star, and this was made clear during her performance at Tokyo 2020. Though she didn’t play for the first two matches, Vanessa was named a starter for the match against Great Britain. She ended the tournament by playing every minute of the semi-finals, and the all-important, suspense-filled Gold Medal game that was the most-watched event of the entire Olympics, with an audience of 4 million.
Though she comes home only briefly before returning to France to play for the Girondins de Bordeaux, when she is home, she makes sure to spend quality time with her parents and brother. She also visits her friends, and makes stops at some of her favourite spots in Ottawa. She is also working alongside other Canadian soccer names to build a women’s pro league in Canada.
We caught up with Vanessa to talk Tokyo 2020, her journey to Team Canada, and her best advice for aspiring soccer stars.
You spent the first 12 years of your life in Shanghai. What parts of that culture do you think are still with you today?
I lived in Shanghai in a compound, where I would spend a lot of time in the playground, with friends from Argentina, Japan, Morocco, France… it was a whole blend of cultures. Growing up in that environment taught me how to be open-minded, accepting, and sympathetic to the needs of others. I think that is what I took away the most from growing up in a foreign country with fellow foreigners.
What was it like to go from such a busy, large city, to Ottawa? What were your first impressions of the city?
We visited Canada every two summers or so, because our family was here. We would visit Quebec and sometimes Vancouver. When we moved to Ottawa, I remember noticing how clean and quiet everything was. Going from Shanghai, which was busy and bustling, to Ottawa, a government city, was new for me. Everything was accessible, safe, and clean. Everyone spoke the same language as me, too. It was a fun and new experience.
Tell me about your parents, who were anxiously watching your Olympic journey from home this summer. How important have they been to your career and your success?
I always say that my parents are my number one fans, and my brother is my number two. They probably enjoyed the win even more than I did. My mom is comparable to Regina George’s mom… she’s always videotaping, smiling, and super involved with me and my friends. She is the first person to send me an article or interview, always. I’m very close with both of them, and I FaceTimed them the whole time I was away. We experienced the win a bit differently, but they are very, very proud, and I am so glad to be able to share this experience with them.
When we visited the Mayor’s office this month, they were incredibly moved and thrilled to be there. They saved the cupcakes with my face on them, they’ve refused to eat them (laughs).
You’ve spoken about the influence that your Ottawa coach, Raz-El Asmar, has had on your career. Why was he such a special influence on you?
I started soccer late, around the age of 16. When you start that late, you have a long way to go. Finding a team here in Ottawa was difficult, because I had no idea how any of the clubs worked. I just had my friends and brother who played. I remember texting my high school coach, Raz, and it took about a month for him to let me try out. I was awful. I still have no idea how I made the team, but he accepted me and took me under his wing.
My dad was a hotel manager, and he was often out of town during those years. My mom also worked and played tennis, and couldn’t drive me all the time. So Raz would pick me up and drop me off. He would let me practice with the boys and always pushed me. He was the one who encouraged me to try out for Team Ontario. He’s also been pushing me to be on the national team for as long as I can remember. When I think of my soccer coach in Ottawa, he’s the first person that comes to mind. I always visit him when I’m in town. He is like a second dad to me here in Ottawa.
Take me through the ups and downs of preparing for Tokyo 2020. What was it like for you, waiting out the pandemic, and then finally being able to compete again after months of lockdown?
Well, there were a lot of ups and downs with COVID. I had a very background role with team Canada leading into the Olympics. I did not know where I would fit into the team, and if I would even make the team. Everything was up in the air. We had staffing changes, players being injured in camp, some players couldn’t come… and then I received a phone call. I remember leading up to that call, I was shopping at Tanger Outlets with my two best friends. I got a text from Bev asking to call. My mind just went blank. I thought she was going to cut me. She told me she’d call me in five minutes, and in those five minutes I was thinking ‘this is terrible. I’ve been preparing for so long and I’m not going to get to go. I don’t even deserve these jeans’. I threw the jeans I was going to buy away and walked out of the store. She called me, and at first she started chit-chatting about the weather. But then she said, ‘I would love to have you as part of the 18 on the team’. And, I’m wearing those jeans I almost threw out today.
Other than that, we had a blast. We made do with the weather, and had fun every day. Dezzy and some of the other girls organized a MarioKart tournament during our stay in Japan, and we had movie nights, too. It was just like any other girl’s trip…except, it was the Olympics.
Tell me about the moment of your penalty kick, a moment that is tough in any game of soccer, let alone on the world’s stage in the last minutes of the gold medal game. Can you describe that feeling?
In pre-camp, we had been practicing PK’s and so we were pretty well prepared to lead into the Olympics with the reps over time. When the time came, I finally had the chance to kick against Brazil. I selfishly remember being upset at being 5th. I wanted to kick it, and I was frustrated that I might not have the chance to lead my team to victory. Then Steph (goalie) came up big, and so did the others in scoring, and I got my chance. I thanked God for my opportunity to kick it. I only get stressed thinking about that moment when I look back.
I remember talking to Ashley about it… while you normally would be nervous in that setting, we were just so tired and concentrated that we didn’t feel nervous. The heat made us all a bit more fatigued than we are used to.
Looking back on the experience of being at the Olympics, what was a highlight for you?
The social aspect of being around amazing athletes and getting to meet some of the idols that I watched growing up was definitely a highlight. At the end of the day, they were just regular athletes like me eating at the cafeteria. That’s where I got a picture with Allyson Felix. She was just going to get some pasta or something, and I just jumped in and asked for a picture (laughs).
Another memory is after winning the gold medal game, and going back and having dinner at around 4 am in the meal hall. We were just sitting there with our medals around our necks and a pile of pizza, just soaking in the moment. Looking around the hall and seeing other teams and athletes at 4 am with their medals, just hanging out like it was any other tournament.
We spent the rest of the morning hanging out at the Olympic Rings, soaking it all in with all of the other athletes there from other sports. We closed the closing ceremonies, and eventually had to be kicked out because we were the last ones there!
September 14th is now Vanessa Gilles Day. How special is that to you? How do you plan to celebrate this day every year?
(Laughs) It’s weird and surreal having a name day. It will be my friends bringing it up, planning the celebrations I think.
It’s an honour to have been able to celebrate that moment with The Mayor, my family, and my friends all together. I think it was the first time we have all been together. I felt like it was my wedding, we were all together and celebrating as one and drinking champagne… it was fun.
How long will you be at home before going back to France? Where are some of your favorite places to go to eat or to relax in Ottawa when you’re home?
I am here until Sunday. I have been here for two weeks. Whenever I come home, I’m a huge Kettlemans fan so I will try to go as much as I can and stuff my suitcase with bagels when I go back to France. They end up getting stolen by my friends who also love Kettlemans bagels now. So that is my ultimate go-to.
What kind of music do you listen to? Do you have a favourite artist?
I listen to all kinds of music, French, English, Spanish, all of it. I’m not very picky. I listen to throwbacks as well. We were in Tremblant with my friends and we had Nicki Minaj on repeat.
Favourite movie, book, or Netflix recommendation?
Harry Potter! Or any of the Marvel movies.
What is your favourite food to eat?
It’s gotta be sushi for me.
What’s one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you?
I am a pretty big geek, I love playing PlayStation and computer games. People ask me what I like to do in my downtime, and if I always feel the need to read or stretch and recover. The reality is that if I am not doing recovery, I’ll be on my couch or computer chair with the headsets on, playing away.
You are such an inspiration to young girls who are now looking to follow in your footsteps. What is the best piece of advice you could give them?
I would say, believe in yourself. Be an advocate for yourself and fight for yourself, because nobody will do it for you, and no one will fight for you like you can.
So many people didn’t believe in me or think I would ever be in the position I am in now. I just kept plugging away, working away, and reaching for the stars.
You should always reach for the stars, even though you might just get to the top of the tree (laughs). Work as hard as possible, and that way you will have no regrets, and you’ll see just where your potential can lead to.
Photography by Sean Sisk
Makeup by Corey J. Stone