Vanessa Gilles battles for the ball during Canada's friendly against New Zealand on Saturday. (Sean Burges/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Olympic gold medalist Vanessa Gilles was 20 years old when she watched the Canadian women’s national soccer team play Brazil at TD Place in her hometown of Ottawa, Ont. in 2016. Janine Beckie scored a goal in added time to give Canada a 1-0 victory in the friendly match.

During a press conference on Tuesday, Gilles smiled as she recalled being in the stands that day.

“I remember sitting in TD Place, watching Canada play Brazil and saying to myself and my teammates at the time as well, ‘Crap, I want to be on that field. I want to wear that jersey. I want to celebrate with them,'” Gilles says.

Five years later, she was back at TD Place, this time as a player celebrating Canada’s 5-1 win over New Zealand on Saturday in the first match of their Celebration Tour. Gilles, now 25, was a part of Canada’s historic run to a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in August, scoring the game-winning penalty kick in the quarterfinals against Brazil and playing a key role on defense throughout the tournament.

Gilles’ path to the top of her sport in Canada, from intrepid teenager to future star, has been fast but not exactly conventional.

‘I don’t want to play tennis anymore’

Gilles didn’t start playing soccer until she was 16 years old.

In fact, her first sport was tennis. She picked up a racket while her family was living in Shanghai and continued to play after they moved to Canada when she was 12, eventually making it all the way to nationals.

“She did quite well, but right after the nationals she told me, ‘I don’t want to play tennis anymore,’” recalls her mother, Josie Castelli-Gilles.

“Why don’t you want to play?” Castelli-Gilles asked her daughter at the time.

“I hate it,” Gilles responded.

Having enrolled Gilles in a sports study program at Louis-Riel high school, where the tennis coach had already designed an entire training program for her, Castelli-Gilles tried to discourage her daughter from quitting.

“I told her to just try it for at least three months, like ‘til Christmas, and she didn’t really want to but I kind of forced her to do it,” she says.

Gilles became “very disruptive” in the tennis group and was benched, her mother says. Eventually, the coach told Castelli-Gilles that Gilles didn’t want to be a part of the program.

“So I said, ‘OK, let’s save our money and our time,’” Castelli-Gilles says. “I pulled her out and she wanted to play soccer. I told her, ‘You do it on your own. I did everything for tennis. You do this on your own.’”

‘This girl could be on the provincial team. Like, now.’

Entering the 10th grade, Gilles had never touched a soccer ball in her life. She told the high school soccer coach, Joé Fournier, she wanted to join the team to be with her friends. Fournier was hesitant at first not because of Gilles’ lack of soccer experience, but because he was worried she would show up only for the social aspect and would distract the other players.

He finally offered her a tryout as a goalkeeper, which Gilles accepted.

By the end of her trial, everyone was dumbfounded.

“She was phenomenal,” Fournier says. “Like, unbelievable.”

The goalkeeper coach at that point was working with Ontario’s provincial program. After two weeks of training Gilles with Louis-Riel, the coach told Fournier, “This girl could be on the provincial team. Like, now.”

It was exciting for the team to suddenly fill a void in their lineup with a talented player straight off the tennis court.

The following week, however, Gilles admitted she wasn’t happy in net and was only playing there because she believed that’s what everyone else expected of her. What she really wanted were more touches on the ball.

Fournier obliged, assigning her to center back. The position suited her because of her physicality, but she had a lot of catching up to do in terms of her technical skills on the ball.

“She couldn’t pass even if her life depended on it,” Fournier says.

Fellow center back Alexie Morin-Holland, who went on to play university soccer for the Ottawa Gee-Gees, took Gilles under her wing and helped her learn the position. Years later, when Gilles came back to visit Louis Riel after making the national team, a student asked her to name her role model. Gilles’ answer was Morin-Holland.

“She knew what her place was on the team,” Fournier says. “Even though she was an unbelievable athlete, she knew she wasn’t at the same standards as those girls at that point. … She grew and she learned from those girls so much.”

Gilles’ natural athletic talent was obvious, but it was her ability to learn quickly and not take soccer too seriously that helped her take off.

“She was extremely focused, but it wasn’t a question of do or die,” he said. “Vanessa just enjoys life. Like, she’s a big joker, like a goof. But at the same time she’s extremely respectful, so she was a good listener, a quick learner because she put into practice what we were trying to help her with. I think that’s why she progressed.”

In her first year of organized soccer, Gilles helped Louis-Riel to the high school provincial championship. Within the next two years, she won a league title with her club team, captured a bronze medal with Team Ontario at the 2013 Canada Summer Games, received a full ride to the University of Cincinnati and, eventually, turned professional.

‘She did a lot on her own’

After playing her last college game, capping a highly accomplished career that included the 2017 American Athletic Conference Co-Defender of the Year award, Gilles came home for the holidays and had a conversation with her mother about the next chapter. That exchange, according to Castelli-Gilles, went something along the lines of:

“I’m going to Cyprus,” said Gilles, who had signed with Apollon Ladies FC of the Cypriot First Division.

“How did you get that?” asked her mother.

“My agent.”

“What agent?”

“I have an agent now,” Gilles said.

“Oh my god,” Castelli-Gilles said in disbelief.

Getting the agent to sign on required a few calls and some nudging from Gilles. But if Gilles has proved anything during her athletic career, it’s that she knows how to get something she sets her mind to.

In 2018, Gilles made 11 appearances with Apollon and scored 10 goals. Later that year, she joined FC Girondins de Bordeaux of D1 Féminine, where she’s since scored three goals in 59 games.

“For soccer, she did a lot on her own,” Castelli-Gilles says.

‘Vanessa is an absolute legend in Ottawa’

Gilles played her first game with the Canadian national team on Nov. 10, 2019 in a 3-0 win over New Zealand at the 2019 Yongchuan International Tournament.

Since then, she’s made 11 appearances, none more notable than in the quarterfinals of the Olympics. Gilles converted Canada’s fifth and final penalty kick against Brazil to set them on the path to gold.

The Canadians celebrated that win just as they had after defeating Brazil in 2016, when Gilles was watching from the stands. This time, she was the reason they had won.

“I think what we’re quickly learning is Vanessa is an absolute legend in Ottawa,” says Canada head coach Bev Priestman. “This city is so, so proud of Vanessa’s achievements … She’s an absolute legend and will do anything to keep a clean sheet and do whatever it takes to win, and I think they’re attributes loved by all Canadians.”

On Saturday, Canada played New Zealand, the opponent for Gilles’ first international cap at TD Place, where she first realized how badly she wanted to play for the national team.

“Now me being able to play on that field, doing exactly what I wanted to do is kind of full circle for me,” Gilles says. “But at the same time, I think about that moment (the celebration of Beckie’s goal in 2016) and I think about other girls sitting in the seats I was watching us play.

“My number one thing that’s important to me is inspiring the youth, having that impact on the players who are sitting in those seats … I can’t stress enough the impact that had on my career and my ambitions, and seeing other people and players in that position is really cool.”

Fournier surprised his 6-year-old daughter, Nève, with tickets to Saturday’s game. Her favorite players are Gilles and Beckie.

He also plans to bring Nève to Montréal for the second game of the Celebration Tour.

Gilles was born in Montréal, meaning Tuesday will offer yet another full-circle moment.

Jessa Braun is an editorial intern at Just Women’s Sports. She is also the Head of North American Content for the Women’s Sports Alliance. You can follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.