As they stood on the ice in a near-empty Sadlon Arena in south-end Barrie, having completed both their rhythm dance and free dance skate routines, Olivia Rybicka-Oliver and Joshua Andari took in the silence.
The typically boisterous cheering from the crowd or shouts of encouragement during and after their skates were missing, but for the Mariposa School of Skating ice-dance pair, who would later find out their Dec. 11-12 performance earned them a gold medal in the Polish Junior National Championship, it was still a special moment and one they'll always cherish.
"It meant everything to us," Andari told BarrieToday.
Andari and Rybicka-Oliver were allowed to compete virtually due to travel restrictions as a result of the global pandemic.
"This year has really been a test for Olivia and I, mentally and physically. We had to battle losing our ice, losing where we train," Andari added. "It was hard mentally, not knowing what we were going to be doing a month, even a weekend ahead. Things changed daily.
"When we won, it was an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and relief because we had worked so hard not just planning for the future, planning day by day, in and out of the rink, so that we could keep our goals, which we did," he said.
The Barrie dance pair have been training and competing together the last two years and had won a silver medal in last year's Polish junior nationals.
To deal with what they have had to with COVID-19 and come out on top together despite all the adversity they faced means so much for Rybicka-Oliver.
"Especially since we're a couple off the ice," said the 17-year-old, who was born in Poland and has a dual Canadian/Polish citizenship. "It meant that much more to us, because were able to celebrate such a special moment that we achieved together. It was, honestly, so amazing. I wouldn't want to celebrate a big win like that with anyone else."
Andari, who is from Chatham and boards in Barrie when training at Mariposa, and Rybicka-Oliver, who moved to Barrie almost four years ago, didn't find out they had won until a couple days later. By then, Andari had returned home to Chatham.
"It's a shame," Rybicka-Oliver said. "My mom had to call us separately and tell us that we won over the phone."
Competing under strict competition and video guidelines, the dance pair produced a career-best performance. During the rhythm dance, which is the short skate they did first, they only had two people in the cavernous arena with them and they were both recording, so they didn't get any applause whatsoever.
The second day was a bit easier since they had their teammates there with them.
"Both (dances) were very difficult, because we're so used to so much motivation," Rybicka-Oliver said. "We really had to motivate ourselves during this time."
Performing in front of an empty arena meant having to rely on each other that much more, especially for motivation.
"Most every competition we do there's a crowd and it motivates us and this year when there wasn't a crowd," Andari said. "Olivia and I really used each other as motivation. Even looking at each other on the ice, we knew that we were doing this for ourselves and that really gave us a sense of unity. When there was no one there in the stands, we always had each other."
Helping guide them through these difficult obstacles were coaches David Islam, Mitch Islam, Kelly Johnson, James Callan, and mental trainer Christine Reeves.
Reeves was instrumental in helping the pair prepare mentally for a performance that would be like no other.
"It was a lot harder this year, but at the same time it was a little bit easier since we got in contact with a very special mental trainer (Reeves) and she really helped us work through the exact things that we had to be able to compete virtually with no audience to get through it mentally," explained Rybicka-Oliver, who also holds the Guinness World Record as the fastest spinner on the ice with 342 rotations per minute. "So, she really was a huge help with our winning process.
"I have her to thank for that, because without her our mental strength would not be as great and it wouldn't have helped us as much," she added. "We got through it all because all of the mental strength exercises we've been doing with her."
The "mental game" was a challenge all year, Andari says. Even the week before the Polish junior nationals, they weren't certain that there would be a competition because of the changing restrictions during the pandemic. Day-by-day, it was wishful thinking, hoping there would be a competition.
"It's been stressful, for sure," said the 18-year-old, who, along with his dance partner, have their own charitable cause called Skating for Young Heroes, which combines passion for skating with their passion for helping less fortunate children. "Olivia and I have been both working on our mental game this year, but it has been very stressful and a lot of anxiety in the year.
"It's just like what happened now, with the lockdown. We're lucky it didn't happen two weeks before it did because then we wouldn't have been able to compete," he added. "We had that feeling all year, are we going to get shutdown? Are we going to lose ice?"
Unfortunately for the Barrie ice-dance pair, this brings the competitive season to an end. While there may be no world championship because of the pandemic, they still appreciate the opportunity to compete when so many other skaters haven't been able to.
"Last year, we were travelling all over the globe competing," Rybicka-Oliver said. "We were doing competitions back-to-back in Europe all the time and it was like a normal thing. We may have had only one competition and it was at our home rink, but we were just so happy to compete even if it was only going to compete one time.
"We gave it our all, because we knew that it was going to be our one and only time."
As for what's ahead, they'll look to continue training on and off the ice when they're able depending on pandemic restrictions. Andari knows the hard work and training must continue.
"We're going to keep our heads on the ground, (be) level-headed," he said. "We're going to work as hard as we can during the lockdown here and when we get back on the ice, and the same thing for next year. We don't know what its going to bring, but we're going to work hard and be ready for anything."
Their gold-medal win was certainly a nice way to head into the holiday season.
"This has brought great joy the past couple of weeks when we heard we won," Andari said. "Definitely a good Christmas."