Taking a lift in a hot air balloon on Labor Day was “much scarier” for blind judoka Liana Mutia than competing for Team USA at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo last month.
“I’m all about new experiences,” the 22-year-old Colorado Springs resident said before jumping in a balloon gondola, or basket, Monday at Memorial Park.
She put aside her fear of heights for a leisurely journey through the gaping city.
Like the Paralympic Games, Mutia’s race was “both overwhelming and exhilarating”, she said.
The sun rose in tandem with a record 78 balloons that participated in the 45th annual Labor Day liftoff.
After last year’s truncated event due to the COVID pandemic, the tradition’s return drew some 25,000 people each long weekend morning and around 50,000 by evening balloon glow, estimates organizers.
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“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” marveled Laura Aguilar, who lives near Denver. She and her family woke up at 4 a.m. to arrive in the dark to, for the first time, see the action.
“Worth it,” she said, gazing up at the sky, where glowing shapes occasionally appeared parked in the still air.
Monday’s weather was perfect, said pilot Tom Steinbock of Crestwood, Ky. His company, Cartoon Hot Air Balloons, travels across the country to entertain crowds with giant balloons shaped like a yellow bird and a cat named Puddy. .
“It was one of the best events of the year,” he said. “The people, the crowds are great, the mountains in the background. … I think it’s even better than Albuquerque.
The New Mexico city hosts the largest hot air balloon event in the world, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, every October.
Colorado Springs weather cooperated on all three days this year, allowing balloons to lift off and dip their baskets into nearby Prospect Lake before racing away.
But on Monday, they rose majestically above the eastern plains just for fun.
Colorado Springs resident Alyce Stas cycled to the park. She first participated five years ago.
“It’s just as amazing today,” she said. “It’s exciting to see them inflate and take off. I also like to hear all the information about hot air balloons.
Things like how the hot air forced into the opening causes the balloon to rise, and when the air inside cools, they return to Earth. They are also federally registered aircraft and must adhere to strict safety rules in the air and on the ground.
Mutia was one of 10 Olympians who rode the balloon on Monday, which has been dubbed Military Appreciation Day and Olympians Welcome Day.
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers told the crowd that 295 U.S. Olympians and Paralympians who competed at the Tokyo Games have lived in Colorado Springs while training, and some are permanent residents.
“It’s a tradition that’s part of our city’s DNA,” he said of the hot air balloon festival.
Track cycling gold medalist Jennifer Valente signed autographs for a long line of fans. A student at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Valente said she had attended the festival once before.
“It was awesome,” she said, adding that she appreciated the city “to do something special for the Olympians” at this year’s event.
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