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His final dive is divine

A college student joins the ranks of those victorious in the Epiphany cross dive. Forty divers participated this year.

By KATHERINE GAZELLA, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 7, 2002


A college student joins the ranks of those victorious in the Epiphany cross dive. Forty divers participated this year.

TARPON SPRINGS -- Achilleas Houllis kept his eyes on the white cross as it left the archbishop's hand and fell into the chilly waters of Spring Bayou. He swam frantically, then broke the murky surface with the cross in hand.

"I just dove down, and I saw the cross," he said. "I can't explain how good the feeling is."

Houllis, 18, a former star quarterback at Tarpon Springs High School, retrieved the cross Sunday during the annual Epiphany celebration. Whoever captures the cross is said to be blessed for the following year.

"I thank God," said Houllis, who has a cross tattoo on his right upper arm.

For nearly 100 years, Greek Orthodox people have celebrated Epiphany every Jan. 6 in Tarpon Springs. The city hosts the largest Epiphany celebration in the Western Hemisphere, and thousands of people attended the cross dive this year.

Epiphany commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist.

Bad weather threatened to put a damper on the festivities. As late as Sunday morning, television meteorologists were predicting rain during the early-afternoon cross dive.

The Rev. Tryfon Theophilopoulos, the dean of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs, predicted last week that the forecasters were wrong and that it would not rain over the cross dive. He was right. The gray skies turned to blue by late morning, and it was warm and sunny for the main event.

In spite of the warm air temperature, the water was only 56 degrees, compared to the usual 68 to 72 degrees.

The 40 divers, ages 16 to 18, had to dive into the chilly water, then wait on 10 dinghies while Archbishop Demetrios blessed the waters. One of the boats capsized, as it did the year before, and the divers from that dinghy scurried to other boats in the semicircle.

After Houllis climbed out of Spring Bayou clutching the cross, the other divers carried him several blocks on their shoulders from the bayou to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

"I'm not going to fall, right?" Houllis said to the divers as they ran him down Tarpon Avenue.

Houllis is a member of St. Raphael, St. Nicholas and St. Irene Hellenic Orthodox Church in Palm Harbor. The church now holds services in a tent; and during his breaks from school, Houllis has helped to remodel a new church building. He worked until 2 a.m. a few days ago, said Irene Koulianos, one of the founders of the church.

"Most people don't know these things," she said.

After retrieving the cross, Houllis posed for pictures with Archbishop Demetrios, who pointed out that Houllis shares a first name with a famous Greek, albeit with a different spelling.

"It is nice that you have the name of a national hero," the archbishop said. "But you remember, even he had a weak spot."

Houllis is the son of Michael Houllis, a bridge painter, and Cindy Houllis, who works with at-risk families through Pinellas County Schools. Mr. Houllis teared up after his son retrieved the cross, and Mrs. Houllis wept while hugging her son.

As an 18-year-old, this was Houllis' last chance to dive for the cross. His two older brothers dove for the cross in past years but did not retrieve it.

"Thank God he got it," Mr. Houllis said. "He's the youngest one."

Houllis is a freshman at Indiana State University, where he is a backup quarterback on the football team. He was raised in Tarpon Springs.

"I'm going to take this blessing with me and graduate from college and do it for the Lord," he said.

But on Sunday, he had more immediate concerns. As he stood at St. Nicholas, with photographers snapping pictures on all sides of him, Houllis wanted some dry clothes. He planned to spend the afternoon walking from house to house with the other divers, singing and receiving donations for themselves and the church.

"I want to go back, take a shower, go sing with the boys," he said.

-- Staff writer Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or gazella@sptimes.com.

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