Canadian international Vanessa Gilles has had a remarkable year.
The centre back became a starter for Canada’s women’s soccer team despite having just a handful of caps to her name. She also stood on top of the podium at the Tokyo Games as an Olympic gold medallist.
But that wasn’t her first podium experience in Tokyo; she also took home video game gold in the intrasquad Mario Kart tournament, standing atop the makeshift stage composed of couch cushions in the lobby of the building where the team stayed.
“It's funny that this keeps coming up. I didn't think this was gonna have that much of an impact on people,” Gilles laughed during a Zoom call with the media on Tuesday. “I will be honest, I wasn't that nervous about my competition, having practised with them prior to the tournament at Mario Kart.”
And her strategy?
“I usually go for Toad for a little bit of speed since I lack it in real life… It’s all about the drift.”
Gilles and her teammates are preparing for the upcoming Celebration Tour to honour the squad’s historic Olympic gold. The festivities kick off with a two-game series against New Zealand, beginning at TD Place in Ottawa on Saturday, before travelling to Montreal on Oct. 26 at Stade Saputo.
This will be the first time the team is together since they defeated Sweden on penalties in August to take home the program’s first Olympic gold.
“It's been nice just reconnecting,” Gilles said. “When we go to our separate bubbles, we lose touch. It's different than seeing each other every day, obviously. So, we get to catch up and get the news all in one whole bulk.”
Head coach Bev Priestman shares her players’ enthusiasm for the chance to be back together.
“I think what I'm personally, as a coach, looking forward to is getting back on the grass and feeling and seeing where these players are up from where I left them, because I'd like to think they're hungrier than ever,” Priestman told the media last week. “So, I can't wait to get back on the pitch and build now for the future.”
This will also be the first time the Canadian women have played in front of a home crowd since May 18, 2019 – a 3-0 win over Mexico in the team’s send-off game before the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Gilles has never played for the national team on Canadian soil. Now the 25-year-old Ottawa native will have a chance to do so in her hometown.
“It’s kind of weird to have my first home game as in Canada game in Ottawa, in my actual home,” she said. “I won't say [I’m] nervous, but… definitely lots of emotions and excitement around it.
“I remember sitting in TD [Place] watching Canada play Brazil and… saying to myself, ‘Crap, I want to be on that field. I want to wear that jersey.’”
Gilles has enjoyed a meteoric ascent with the Canadian team, a feat even more impressive considering the former tennis player didn’t start playing soccer until she was 16.
She began this year with just two caps to her name before becoming a go-to player in Priestman’s squad. But Gilles maintains that her life hasn’t changed since becoming an Olympic gold medallist.
“It still hasn't sunk in – the gravity of it, the weight of it,” she said. “Even just reflecting back on the experience – when I think about how much fun we had on the field, and just getting up and getting to talk and hang out and tell jokes with my best friends and getting on the field and being able to experience that with those people. For me, it was that's really what was remarkable about it.”
Gilles was first called into national team camp in 2019 by former head coach Kenneth Heiner-Møller. She took part in three camps prior to the World Cup, but ultimately did not make the roster for the tournament. Gilles then earned her first cap on Nov. 10, 2019, in a 3-0 win over New Zealand at the International Women’s Football Tournament in China.
She started to turn heads earlier this year at the SheBelieves Cup in February, where Canada was missing many of its key players, including star centre back Kadeisha Buchanan.
Gilles played all 90 minutes in Canada’s opener against the top-ranked Americans, anchoring the defence alongside veteran Shelina Zadorsky. Although the Canadians would narrowly lose 1-0 to their rivals, Gilles had a standout performance, recording 20 clearances – seven more than the entire American team.
“We literally call her ‘The Magnet’ because she just finds a way to clear the ball and get to it and uses her strength and power so well,” Zadorsky said after the game.
Gilles would make four more appearances for Canada before being named to the Olympic roster.
After not playing in Canada’s first two group matches at the Tokyo Games, Gilles was named a starter for Canada’s game against Great Britain.
Priestman then made the surprising decision for Canada’s quarter-final match against Brazil, benching Zadorsky – who has more than 70 appearances for her country, along with an Olympic bronze medal from the Rio Games in 2016 – in favour of the less experienced Gilles.
“The Shelina decision was really difficult… That was a big decision, big call,” Priestman said in August. “I think if I asked my players to be brave, I had to be that myself.”
Gilles and Buchanan became Canada’s new centre back pairing, and while Buchanan admitted it took time for the duo to figure out each other’s tendencies, she had nothing but praise for her new defensive partner.
“She's a beast,” she said in August. “She definitely came on and killed it... I definitely think our partnership built throughout the Olympics. It was just good to watch her flourish, come off the bench and be a starter and just be the beast that she was.”
Gilles played all 120 minutes against Brazil and stepped up in penalties as her team’s crucial fifth shooter, helping Canada advance to the semifinals.
From there, Gilles never relinquished her newfound role as starter, playing every minute of the semifinal and gold-medal match.
“I think what's beautiful about our team is the trust that we have in each other and the depth that we have,” Gilles said. “Yes, I was a key player, but I think everybody who stepped on that pitch was, and most people did step on the pitch, so that was the beauty of our team.”
After returning to her club in France, FC Girondins de Bordeaux, Gilles netted a pair of Champions League goals before her team was eventually eliminated from the competition by European powerhouse VCL Wolfsburg.
She then returned home during an international break, and Sept. 14 was officially named “Vanessa Gilles Day” in Ottawa in honour of her accomplishments.
“Girls and boys on Ottawa soccer pitches continue to be inspired by your performance both on and off the field,” mayor Jim Watson told Gilles in last month’s ceremony.
Like many of her teammates, Gilles is also turning her attention to building a women’s professional league in Canada. In a lengthy Instagram post following the Olympics, she wrote about the need to take the next step forward.
“Having a professional league, having a professional team here in Canada would just help with campaign development in general, male and female,” she said.
With several recent allegations of abuse coming to light in the National Women’s Soccer League, Gilles is also pushing for a player-led league for Canadians.
“I think that comes from players advocating and speaking about it, but also having investors. Money runs the world, so that's the first step as well, to getting people interested and committed to building this league, which I think could do tremendously well here in Canada,” she said. “We have seen through the Olympics the support and the backing that we've had… Whenever we come home, people are interested in watching these games, and I think that a league could further that as well.”