Future divers wait for their chance
By MEGAN SCOTT and KELLEY BENHAM
Years from diving for the cross, a group of altar boys huddled together outside the church Monday morning with their own jitters.
They wondered where they would walk in the procession and what they would get to carry.
Serving at Epiphany is an honor, they said, but diving for the cross is their biggest dream. They even practice by throwing all kinds of objects into swimming pools.
"Everyone does that," said Chris Spiliotopoulos, 13. "Just to see."
One boy he knows practices his dives while wearing layers of wet T-shirts, he said. Another swims laps every day.
Once, he and his friend Savas Amorginos, 15, tried to make their own practice cross, following as closely as they could the design of the real cross made each year by Bill Paskalakis, a former Tarpon Springs High School shop teacher.
"We didn't use the right wood, and it started chipping," Chris said. "So we duct-taped it."
But the taped-together cross was unseaworthy, he said.
"We couldn't get it wet," he said. "Because of the tape."
For amateur crossmakers, the real cross is made of oak, which holds together better than the particle board the boys used.
Chris knows retrieving the cross is not a competition, and it's not about luck.
"It symbolizes Jesus being baptized," he said. "You think, 'Wow, this all started with one man. All because of this one man, that's why we're here.' "
When the time came, Chris carried a large candle in the procession. He was right in the front.
READY OR NOT: In the excitement of Epiphany, there were, as is often the case, a few mishaps.
One diver leaped before the cross was thrown and had to backstroke back to his boat. Three dinghies capsized, leaving cross divers struggling to stay out of the water. Two remained overturned until the cross was thrown. Some of the divers climbed on top, others clung to the sides from the water.
A police boat rescued three cross divers from their dinghies. Two hadn't been feeling well that morning but decided they were going to try to dive anyway, said Michael Kouskoutis, co-chairman of the divers. He didn't know what was wrong with the third cross diver.
All three divers were okay.
This happens every year, said Kouskoutis, who has been helping with the dive for 17 years. A combination of cold water, sitting wet in dinghies while waiting for the cross to be thrown and the adrenaline rush can make some kids ill.
"Last year, we had one or two kids that were real sick who tried to dive," he said. "They would not let having a cold or flu stop them from diving."
No one has ever died during a cross dive.
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PASTRY PRIDE: Don't call it a funnel cake, a donut or a beignet. It's a loukoumade, said Elaine Damianakis of Tarpon Springs, and it's very different.
"This is flour and water and a little syrup and that's it," said Damianakis, who has been making the puff pastry for 37 years. "Very healthy. It's no cholesterol. No milk. No eggs."
She serves her dumplings with a sprinkle of powdered sugar, a dash of cinnamon and a few chopped walnuts. They are deep-fried in oil.
Damianakis, 50, has been selling her own loukoumades at the Glendi festival for as long as she can remember. She donates the proceeds to community service organizations.
"This is for special occasion, not every day," she said. "It's really a Greek celebration food.
"See. See," she says pointing to a bowl of the pastry balls. "Very light. Very empty inside."
WHERE ARE THE GIRLS? This was the first Epiphany for Chuck Triglianos, 53, a Greek who lives in Deerfield Beach.
"I've heard stories about what this is. This is the celebration of the first appearance of the Holy Trinity all at once.
"I myself wasn't a cross diver. Neither was my son. He's 35. Maybe my grandchildren will be down there one day.
"I've heard that his Eminence throws the cross into the water and some boys go in after it. My question is where are the girls?"
IT'S A GUY THING: The minimum diving age is 16.
That's the age George Leontidis had been waiting to reach. While other boys were thinking about getting their driver's license, George was dreaming of jumping into Spring Bayou for the cross.
"I've been coming here ever since I can remember," said George, a sophomore at Dunedin High School. "It's just a blessing to jump."
George said he wasn't concerned about the chilly water or the fight for the cross. He was leaving it all up to his adrenaline.
As for why there were no girls, he said diving for the cross is a guy thing.
"It's religious," he said. "It's tradition. It's for guys. That's pretty much it."
DANCING THE DAY AWAY: Just about every Greek dance involves holding hands or each other's shoulders in a line or circle, said Katie Kostopoulus, 17, of Sarasota.
Katie got down on the dance floor at the Glendi festival performing Greek dances, such as Ikariotiko, a lively mixed dance from the island of Ikaria.
Katie, who started dancing five years ago, said every village in Greece has its own dance, and the Greeks perform them not only at festivals but also in competitions.
"It's just upbeat," she said about Greek dance. "It's cultural. It's fun."
THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE BAYOU: For the first time, spectators could not watch the cross dive from their boats in Spring Bayou. An ordinance passed in the past year prevents boating in the bayou, to protect the manatees that congregate there.
But Tarpon Springs police had a boat there, along with divers who searched the bottom for dangerous or mischievous items. In past years they have found everything from fake crosses to shopping carts.
This year, they found a bundle of about 30 feet of electrical cable and a few fishing lures, said officer John Ulrich, who has dived in the bayou the past eight years.
"No crosses this year," he said.
He also found a manatee, bumping into it in the underwater darkness. The manatees cleared out of the area before the dive.
AN IMPORTANT CROWD: This year's ceremony included more Greek Orthodox hierarchs than any other year, including some with local ties.
Arbishop Demetrios of America, the leader of the 1.5-million member archdiocese, led the observance and threw the cross into Spring Bayou. Metropolitan Nikitas of Hong Kong, a Tarpon Springs native, participated in his second Epiphany as a hierarch and blessed the sponge fleet at the docks on Sunday. He was a cross retriever in 1974.
Also in attendance were Bishop Alexios of Troas, Vicar of Atlanta, and Bishop Savas of Troas, whose grandparents settled in Tarpon Springs from Kalymnos, Greece, in the 1920s. His parents were married in the St. Nicholas cathedral. Savas has not visited Tarpon Springs in more than 40 years.
In all, there were six hierarchs, the most ever, said the Rev. Tryfon Theophilopoulos. The reason?
"Cold weather up north," he said.
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