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    On fourth dive, the cross is his

    Nioti Koulianos plunges to the bottom, cutting his hands on rocks but seizing the prize. ''It's the greatest feeling,'' he says.

    The annual Epiphany celebration coverage from Tarpon Springs.

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      Epiphany 2003

    By KELLEY BENHAM, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 7, 2003


    TARPON SPRINGS -- The water drew them to the bayou just after the sun.

    Epiphany cross divers, after a restless night, came to stare at Spring Bayou as early as 7 a.m. Monday, knowing there was no way to prepare.

    Nioti Koulianos, 18, came around 10 a.m., just to look out at the water and envision his final dive.

    Like a lot of Greek boys, he had practiced the cross dive in the swimming pool as a child. He had watched his cousins retrieve the cross, and they had told him there was no sure strategy: He would find it in his own way.

    The 42 divers endured the wait through the hours-long liturgy at the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, where incense and candles burned and the chanting of the New Testament reached hundreds of believers and carried on speakers all the way to the bayou.

    Just inside the heavy cathedral doors, 17-year-old George Panos kissed the image of St. Nicholas. Petros Karavokiros, 17, lit a candle and asked God to make him strong.

    That afternoon, they wrung their hands during the procession from the church and knelt on the steps to the bayou for a prayer by the archbishop. At his signal, they made a thundering dash to the 65-degree water and a frenzied scramble onto the boats. Some boys clung desperately to capsized dinghies, some crossed themselves and prayed.

    Fists clenching and unclenching, the boys waited through the 10-minute ceremony for the release of the dove that symbolizes the Holy Spirit, and the high arc and fall of the cross that symbolizes Christ's baptism in the River Jordan.

    "May these waters be sanctified," said Archbishop Demetrios Trakatellis of America, the spiritual leader of 1.5-million Greek Orthodox Americans. He threw basil and poured holy water into the bayou. "May your holy name be glorified."

    Koulianos, poised with four other boys on a dinghy to the left of the archbishop, focused harder on the cross than he ever had before.

    "I just tried to clear my mind and look at the cross," Koulianos said. "Just me and the cross."

    His mother Joi, waiting for him on the platform with a yellow towel, saw the look on his face and just knew, she said.

    But when the cross finally left the archbishop's hand, it sank straight into the brown water. The boys chopped furiously at the surface, converged at the spot where the cross disappeared and dove. But no one found the cross.

    They dove again and again, and came up looking around at each other, expecting to see a raised fist that didn't come. As a minute passed, and then nearly another, the crowd of 25,000 screamed at them "Down! Down!" It was the longest search for the cross in recent history.

    Koulianos dove three times, seeing nothing. On his fourth dive, he ran his fingers along the rocky bottom, about 10 feet down, until he had cut open both his hands. Then, he saw something small and white, grabbed for it, and came up shouting "Yes! Yes! Yes!"

    Exhausted, he kept sinking under the water as he held the cross in a fist over his head. He climbed out of the water and fell crying into his mother's arms. His father, Nick Koulianos, hugged him. His grandmother, in her green choir robes, buried her face in his neck.

    The other divers lifted him onto their shoulders and carried him over the brick streets toward the church, tears still wet on his cheeks.

    "It's the greatest feeling I've ever had in my life," Koulianos said, blood running from his fingers onto the wet cross as he clutched it to his chest. "It's unexplainable."

    Koulianos, a graduate of Anchor Academy in Dunedin, has practiced the cross dive in the swimming pool since he was 2, his mother said. He watched his cousins, Anestis Anastasios Karistinos and Jason Kolbe, retrieve the cross in 1991 and 1999.

    This year, his family had a feeling it was Nioti's turn, they said.

    Kolbe, who shares a room with Koulianos, said his cousin couldn't sleep Sunday night so they sat up late talking about the dive. When Kolbe saw his cousin surface with the cross, he jumped a fence and ran toward him.

    "It was like catching it all over again," Kolbe said.

    Koulianos deserves to join the fraternity of the cross divers, said Aleck Alissandratos, who retrieved the cross in 1977 and has worked with the divers for the past 18 years.

    "He's the kid who takes the other kids when they're hurt or falling down and hugs them," Alissandratos said.

    Koulianos volunteers for the church at every opportunity, Alissandratos said.

    "I'm a retriever, and I'm proud to have this boy with us," Alissandratos said.

    At the church, Koulianos knelt in front of the archbishop at the marble altar.

    "May the blessing of the Lord and his mercies be upon you forever and ever, now and for the ages," the archbishop said. Koulianos kissed his hand.

    That is the moment the divers dream of, they said. All the divers receive the archbishop's blessing, but the one who finds the cross feels the archbishop's hands on his head, and the blessing is more special, more personal. "That's what everyone wants," said Emmanuel Pilatos, 18.

    The archbishop addressed the other divers and the spectators, and said that all were blessed. "The cross, Christ, is for all of us," he said.

    Then he turned back to Koulianos. "You went down once, you went down twice, you went down a third time.

    "It took time and it took power, but the cross gave you power," he said. "So God bless you."

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