No pathway to playing competitive sports is the same.
Just ask Canadian defender Vanessa Gilles, who didn’t even start playing soccer until she was a teenager.
“I always wanted to play, but my brother and I were too competitive to be in the same sport,” Gilles recently told Sportsnet. “It wasn’t easy trying to find a coach who would take a risk on me. The first year, I was practising two times a day every day. I knew I wanted it.”
Gilles, 22, was born in Quebec, and lived in China with her family until she was 12 and then moved to Ottawa. That’s where she began suiting up for FC Capital United and Team Ontario, playing in the 2013 Canada Games.
She originally had dreams of being a goalkeeper, but quickly learned she was better suited elsewhere on the pitch.
“I’ve always been good at passing and being involved with moving the ball up,” she explained.
Gilles would eventually earn a scholarship to the University of Cincinnati, where she left her mark on the program, winning numerous awards, including the 2017 American Athletic Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year.
“I had amazing coaches there, great teammates,” she recalled of her time in Ohio. “It was a great environment to grow up in.”
As her college career drew to a close, Gilles embarked on her first opportunity to play professionally, which culminated in a stint in the Cypriot First Division for Apollon Ladies where she appeared in 11 matches and scored 10 goals.
Last summer, she inked a two-year deal with Girondins de Bordeaux in France’s first division, thus becoming yet another Canadian to the French league, a list that already includes Ashley Lawrence, Rebecca Quinn and Kadeisha Buchanan.
“Vanessa’s always had a big upside because of her mentality and her willingness to work on her craft,” stated University of Cincinnati women’s coach Neil Stafford of Gilles’ addition to the French club.
Her move to Bordeaux caught the eye of two national teams: France and Canada. Given her dual citizenship, Gilles spent some time with the France B U-23 team until an email came from the Canadian Soccer Association last December.
“So many feelings,” she said of the call to her first ever Canadian camp. “I didn’t think it would actually happen. Just unreal. It’s been a lucky and great experience. You can’t say no to the country where you started playing soccer. It’s been such a welcoming environment.”
First game in a maple leaf Jersey
Couldn't be more thankful and humbled! pic.twitter.com/OwTKnp0ktQ
— Vanessa Gilles (@VanessaGilles) January 18, 2019
Although she’s still waiting to make her inaugural senior appearance, she has suited up in exhibition action for the Reds ahead of this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.
“It’s the best of the best coming together,” Gilles said of the upcoming tournament in France. “Canada’s an aggressive, gritty team. The strong defensive play shows a lot about our character.”
And while Gilles is excited about what the future holds in her soccer career, she’s quick not to take for granted the journey that brought her to the national team.
“Coaches took a chance on me. It led to the opportunity I have today, which I’m incredibly honoured and humbled by,” she said.