Canadian speedskaters are relishing a bit of normalcy in an abnormal season.
The 13 who travelled to Heerenveen, Netherlands, for their first international races in 10 months did so with scant training on an indoor oval.
But 11 medals in a pair of World Cups there, including two gold, boosts morale heading into the world long-track championship starting Thursday at the same Dutch oval.
"We surprised the international teams. We surprised ourselves," Ottawa's Ivanie Blondin told The Canadian Press.
More than medals, the Canadians are revelling in a return to hard training in an indoor oval, and getting a chance to express that work by racing.
"We're so glad to skate again. We feel like kids again every day," Laurent Dubreuil said.
The COVID-19 pandemic crushed the international racing calendar this winter as it has in many other sports.
Canada's long-track season will consist of January's two World Cups and this week's world championship in Heerenveen's Thialf oval.
The short-track team won't get any World Cup races this winter because all were cancelled, although March's world championship remains on the schedule.
Speed Skating deliberated on whether to send long-track athletes to Holland in the global pandemic, but some skaters felt desperate for competition a year out from the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
"I was one of the skaters who pushed hard for us to go," Dubreuil said. "I'm an athlete rep at Speed Skating Canada. A lot of athletes wrote me and said they wanted to go."
The Canadians arrived in Holland short on quality ice time. They've been without ice at their national training base, Calgary's Olympic Oval, since September because of a mechanical failure.
Ice will not be restored there until spring. The athletes followed a makeshift schedule of dryland training, skating outdoors, short-track workouts and two weeks at a B.C. indoor oval in November.
Dubreuil, of Quebec City, also doesn't have access to an indoor oval in his hometown because one is currently under construction on the site of the previous oval.
He often travels to Calgary for national-team camps, but ice isn't available there either.
Despite suboptimal preparation, Dubreuil earned a silver medal and two bronze in the men's 500, plus another bronze in the 1,000 in the two World Cups.
The 28-year-old compensated for lack of ice time by analyzing video of his good and bad races, and daily visualization of himself racing.
"I think I did the work necessary to perform," Dubreuil said. "When I think about it from a logical point of view, it makes no sense that I would feel confident, but I really did.
"First and foremost you have to believe, which is true in a normal season, but it was even more important this year because the training we did, we knew it wasn't great, but it was the best we could do with the things we had."
Blondin overcame self doubt to win a pair of silver medals in women's mass start, in which she is the reigning world champion.
Blondin, Ottawa's Isabelle Wiedemann and Valerie Maltais of La Baie, Que., kicked off each of the two World Cups for Canada by winning team pursuit gold on the first day.
"Leading into the first World Cup, I was really stressed," Blondin said. "I knew in the team pursuit, that we would do well. I didn't know we would do necessarily as well as we have.
"I was worried about individual performances. I thought 'am I still going to be as good as I was last season?'
"It's those little demons that come out when you can't measure yourself against the rest of the world."
Canada's lack of reps is more evident in long distances.
Reigning men's 5,000-metre world champion Ted-Jan Bloemen of Calgary finished off the podium in his individual World Cup races, although he helped Canada win a silver medal and a bronze in team pursuit.
World 10k champion Graeme Fish of Moose Jaw, Sask., was among Canadian skaters who didn't travel to Heerenveen.
Blondin chose not to compete in the 3,000 metres this season.
"We knew we would have the base, but the ice component wasn't there," Blondin explained
"I feel like the sprinters can get away with it a little bit more, but in the longer distances, you need to feel efficient and to get that efficiency takes months of practice to get on the perfect edge."
The athletes are tested regularly in Heerenveen and must wear masks, Dubreuil said. The Canadians are largely confined to their hotel and the oval, but are allowed outdoor cycling workouts.
"We are pleased and happy that to date the hub has been a relatively great breath of fresh air for our team," Speed Skating Canada chief executive officer Susan Auch said.
"They've had a year filled with not only the COVID uncertainty, but uncertainty with the venues they always train in and call home.
"While they've had some really awesome experiences skating outside, there is nothing that can replace being on fast ice, world-class ice, which we had in Calgary and we will have again."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 10, 2021.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press