Ottawa soccer player Vanessa Gilles keeps focus on pro play, hopes to spur Olympic selection

Vanessa Gilles stretches before a 2019 exhibition match with Canada’s women’s soccer team. Photo: Ville Vuorinen/Canada Soccer

By Colin Orsak

While her dream of becoming an Olympian has been delayed another year, Ottawa’s Vanessa Gilles is keeping optimistic and instead focusing on the beginning of her pro season.

As a possible candidate to represent Canada at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games for women’s soccer, Gilles was supposed to spend her summer training with Team Canada and then hopefully help Canada extend its two-Games medal streak.

But, with the outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent cancellation of all major sports leagues and tournaments, including the Olympics, Gilles spent her summer away from play, training, instead, for “an hour or two every day,” she said.

With the absence of a competitive setting, the defender’s been working out at home, using a turf installed in her backyard at her home in Bordeaux, France.

“We would also do online workouts with Team Canada to keep in touch and some players led Zumba classes which has been a lot of fun,” Gilles said.

Vanessa Gilles

Gilles has regularly joined Team Canada for training camps and has appeared in several international matches/tournaments, though she wasn’t selected for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup roster, or for Canada’s team that placed 2nd at the Concacaf women’s Olympic qualifying tournament, held in February. Finishing as runner-up was good enough to clinch an Olympic berth. Since then, the global pandemic has pushed the Games back a year, and the head coach of the women’s team has left his post – factors that will surely lead to at least some reassessment of who wears the maple leaf next summer.

Eventually competing at the Olympics with Team Canada is still, absolutely, a goal of Gilles’s, but with that pursuit delayed, she’s been able to find silver linings.

“Obviously everyone was in full preparation mode, but I think that having the Games delayed was the right decision, so I can’t say I’m disappointed,” said the former tennis player who turned to soccer at just age 15. “Having more time to prepare will benefit everyone.”

When the Olympics do return, Canada will be looking to add to its back-to-back Olympic bronze medals to prove itself as one of modern day’s most competitive women’s soccer nations.

“There is definitely a culture where there’s high goals and expectations,” Gilles said about Canada’s women’s national program. “There’s an environment of wanting success and having goals and having a desire to win.”

“If you come in for one camp, they don’t expect anything less than your best. It has been a really fun and competitive experience.”

What’s been impacted by the pandemic, she said, is her connection to the team. A consequence to living in Europe, where she plays for FC Girondins de Bordeaux of France’s Division 1 Féminine – the top French women’s league – is that she’s isolated from her Canadian teammates. The pandemic hasn’t only exaggerated her own remoteness, but the team’s separation as well. Team Canada hasn’t seen each other in person in over six months, Gilles notes.

In the meantime, the Louis-Riel high school grad recently returned to league play for Bordeaux. The team has recorded two draws through its first two matches of the season.

“I’m not really thinking about the Games right now,” said the former FC Capital United youth club player. “Right now, I’m focusing on staying healthy and keeping everyone else healthy around me.”

“When I’m at my club, my focus is on my club. If all goes well with (Bordeaux), Team Canada will go well as a result of my work here.”

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