During last year’s Great Falls Balloon Festival, 9-year-old Amanda Alberda entered every competition she could find. A costume contest. Photo contest. Rubber duck race. Water balloon toss.

It didn’t go so well. In the costume contest, all the other contestants were — embarrassingly enough — under 2 years old. For the team-against-team water balloon toss, only Amanda and her mother showed up, so the contest was canceled. Amanda’s rubber duck failed to cross the finish line first. She lost the photo contest.

Not defeated, on the last day of the three-day festival Amanda entered a poster contest to design the next festival’s theme. She sketched out a picture — a coral reef, some fish and a few sharks — and jotted on the back “Ocean.” It would be an unusual theme for a balloon festival that’s so much about air, but Amanda liked water and swimming, and when faced with a blank piece of paper, that’s the idea that came to her.

“I think I probably just went out on a whim,” she said.

Amanda wasn’t upset by the other losses. She’d competed, had fun. And she and her mother had spent up to 16 hours a day exploring the balloon festival. So what if she didn’t win the kiddie costume contest? And as the days passed, then weeks, then months, she thought less and less about the last competition, that pick-the-theme poster contest. Life was filled with the fourth grade, with basketball and gymnastics and growing a garden for charity, and she eventually forgot about her crayoned coral reef.

Until the day she learned she had won.

“I just was so ecstatic,” said Amanda, now 10. “We went to a store after that, and I was, like, just random dancing in the store. Very ecstatic.”

A handful of people entered the poster contest, but it was Amanda’s ocean drawing that charmed organizers. Water and hot air balloons aren’t a common combination. Still, said festival spokeswoman Tracey Steuber, “It just kind of captured us.”

Organizers expanded Amanda’s theme from “ocean” to “world of water” so it could tie into the Androscoggin River. A pair of fish balloons will be featured during the festival this year. The kiddie costume contest and parade floats will be based on the theme. And the Androscoggin Land Trust will lead a “paddle with the balloons” on the river during every launch, among other tie-ins.

As the winner of the pick-a-theme contest, Amanda will serve as grand marshal of Saturday morning’s parade, waving to the crowd from the open top of a roadster. It’s a prestigious position. Last year, Lewiston-Auburn’s mayors led the parade. The year before that, the festival’s founders did.

“My parents look at me, like, ‘Do you know how special this is?'” Amanda said.

An outgoing, expressive kid — she’s had lead roles in her drama camp’s summer productions and wants to be an actress or a lawyer when she grows up — Amanda isn’t nervous about being the center of attention. In fact, she can’t wait.

Especially when it comes to the convertible.

“It’s going to be very fun,” she said.

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Amanda Alberda, 10, of Lewiston won a contest in which her water ideas influenced the theme of this year’s balloon festival, “World of Water.” In addition to having her idea turned into a poster, she will be the parade’s grand marshal.

Balloon festival highlights

• Special balloons: Sushi, a goldfish; and Wally, a clown fish

• Parade: 11 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 22. Starts on Spring Street in Auburn, down Court Street, over Longley Bridge and right onto Lincoln Street, ending at the intersection of Cedar Street.

• Balloon launches: About 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day of the festival, weather permitting. Balloons will be tethered for viewing Friday and Saturday evenings at Simard-Payne Memorial Park.

• Activities and entertainment: Scheduled throughout the festival. Include canoe and kayak trips on the river during balloon launches, performances by area musicians, a carnival, clam-eating contest, pizza-eating contest and stock car racing. FMI: http://www.greatfallsballoonfestival.org/

What: Great Falls Balloon Festival

When: Aug. 21-23

Where: Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston and Festival Plaza in Auburn

FMI: For a schedule of events, parade route information and a list of
this year’s contests, visit www.greatfallsballoonfestival.org

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