As Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team (CANWNT) suits up for the 2023 FIFA World Cup Australia & New Zealand this summer, Ontario Soccer is highlighting the 15 players on the roster that were born and/or raised in the province we call home. Our “Made in Ontario” campaign aims to celebrate youth clubs across the province and inspire current players in the Ontario Soccer system to dream big.
In this special World Cup-inspired Q&A article, Ontario Soccer sat down with Vanessa Gilles from CANWNT. She was first called up to the senior team in 2019 and is attending her first FIFA Women’s World Cup this summer. Professionally, Gilles currently plays for Division 1 Féminine club Lyon, on loan from Angel City FC in Los Angeles, CA.
You can also hear this conversation as a podcast on the Ontario Soccer YouTube channel.
Joining us today from the pre-tournament camp in Australia is Vanessa Gilles. Vanessa, thank you so much for being here with us. How are things going Down Under?
Yeah, things are going good. We got our whole team finally together for the first training session today. So, things are going good. We're ramping up and getting ready for our first practice game against England that coming up in a few days.
Very exciting. So, we wanted to talk to you a little bit today about your journey as a soccer player leading up to where you are right now. Many athletes who play for Team Canada were born and raised in Canada and have played soccer from the time they were very young. But we know that isn't the case for you, so would you mind telling us a little bit about growing up, and when you started out your soccer career?
I grew up in Asia up until I was around 12. Then I moved back to Canada with my family, played tennis for a bit until 15, and then I got into soccer. Once I quit tennis, I started out as a goalkeeper, was a little bit too lonely, and hopped into centre-back since [inaudible]. Yeah, here we are.
So, at 16, you said you quit tennis and chose to focus on soccer. What was it that led you to make that decision?
I think for me, I was at a competitive level and it was really hard mentally an individual sport. It was hard for me, obviously, to quit and take that stance, and when I did, I just wanted to be with friends and have fun. And my friends played soccer so, I just joined in for fun.
There you go. Are there any skills or any type of talent that you've taken from your tennis training or tennis career and translated into your soccer playing?
Yeah, definitely. There's more and more research coming out nowadays about the benefits of being a multi-sport athlete and not just focusing on one path early on. I think the benefit of growing up in Asia is there were no competitive sports you could really focus on. So, you kind of got to play every single sport - you know, not at a great level - but you got to touch on all different kinds of sports. Racket sports, ball sports, track, you know, judo, everything. And so, coming to Canada and focusing just on tennis, I think was the shift for me and that I wasn't expecting or wasn't ready for. But having focused in on tennis and the plyometrics that go into it, and the ball reading, and the hand eye coordination, and moving and tracking the ball is something that I've definitely applied and has helped me get to to where I am having started so late.
So, you decide that soccer is the sport that you're going to move forward with, and then you join the Ottawa Capital United Soccer Club.
Can you tell us anything about your time with that club? Maybe some of the best memories you have, or if there's any coach or former co-athlete that was there that had a special impact on you?
Vanessa Gilles with FC Capital United. Photo by Steve Kingsman
Like I said, I started soccer because my friends, all my closest friends played soccer. I got into CapU because my closest friends played for that club, so I had a little “in”, a little connection to get me on the team. Thankfully the coach, who is still one of the best coaches I've ever had and one of the greatest human beings ever, he took me in. Raz [El-Asmar] in Ottawa. He kind of made the culture in that club. It was a small club, I mean, Ottawa’s a small city but CapU is even a smaller club. I think we had like two women's teams, the ‘96s and the ‘95s and he just made the atmosphere such a tight knit and family-oriented club which made me fall in love with the sport even more. You know, coming to practice was like hanging out with your friends, and thankfully they were all the best players in the in the city as well.
My best friends today are still my best friends that I started soccer with all those years ago at CapU. And we had so much fun, we won titles - which Ottawa is not used to doing in soccer, being such a small city and having to travel to Toronto all the time. But you know, we made do. We traveled to Toronto every weekend to play games. We won those games, you know, we went on to a lot of us playing university and at a high level. You know, I think a lot has to do with with the Coach Raz and the atmosphere and the culture he instilled.
That’s great. So, you start your soccer career in Ontario at 16. Then you go on to play four years at the University of Cincinnati. Shortly after, you sign your first professional contract with the first pro team you played for, and then you make your debut for Team Canada. What an amazing career.
Do you have any advice for players based in Ontario who may be just getting into the sport - maybe a little bit late to the game like you were in your teen years? What advice might you have for them if they aspire to have a career like yours?
Ohh that’s a loaded question! I definitely just say from Ontario, don't close any doors. Don't say no to things just because it's, you know, “the norm” of doing certain things. I went to the University of Cincinnati, which wasn't necessarily a big school for soccer. I went to Cypress to play soccer, it's definitely not a great league, but it was the only way forward for me. And if I had said no to that, I definitely wouldn't be here today, and so forth. So, I think just don't close any doors that you might have. And just keep all your options.
That's great advice. At this point, you've been all over the world with Team Canada. What are some of your greatest memories with the team?
I mean, winning gold was pretty fun!
I would imagine!
Vanessa Gilles holding her Olympic gold medal. Vanessa Gilles / Instagram.
Yeah, I think just like the behind the door moments that people don't see, behind the scenes. So, like even just hanging out, playing Mario Kart together, or ping pong, or just hanging out and chatting in the Canada Room. Like it’s those moments that are obviously not televised and have nothing to do with sports, but that that make being away from friends and family, being away from home, still worthwhile.
As you're all gearing up for the World Cup, coming up here in just about a week, what is the main focus for your team at this point?
Like I said, all of us are finally back together, which has been a while since we really have been all together with injuries having really plagued us this year. The main focus is just going to be gelling, getting into a flow. We have a practice game coming up, so it'll be getting down the details and just getting a rhythm, moving into the tournament in a couple weeks.
Wonderful. Well, Vanessa, I'm sure, you've got a tight schedule as the World Cup, as we said, is just about a week away. So, I'll let you get back to it.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us at Ontario Soccer today. We are so grateful for your time and we wish you all the best of luck.
Thank you. I appreciate it.