In the blink of an eye
In mere seconds, Michael Xipolitas has the cross in his hand, beating out 51 others.
By ROBIN STEIN
Published January 6, 2007
TARPON SPRINGS — There it was, hanging suspended near the surface, just like in their dream.
Michael Xipolitas’ eyes were wide in disbelief when he lifted up his arm and had the Epiphany cross in his grasp.
“I dreamed about it when I was in the hospital,” said his mother, Helen, who has been in and out of the hospital getting treatment for leukemia. “My son had the same dream.”
Xipolitas was in a haze when he emerged from Spring Bayou on Saturday during the 101st Epiphany celebration. As he kneeled before His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios to receive the special blessing, he was shaking, tears streaming down his wet cheeks.
“It feels better than I imagined,” said Xipolitas, 18, of Tarpon Springs, who was one of 52 divers vying for the coveted cross.
Epiphany is an ancient Greek Orthodox ceremony commemorating Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River. The first one to retrieve the cross receives a blessing.
“It’s like beginning a new life,” Xipolitas said to a crowd back inside St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
The boys were still dripping with the waters of Spring Bayou, which Tarpon Springs police estimated was a balmy 75 degrees.
“I have never seen the water this warm,” said Manuel Gombos, who has been organizing Epiphany for more than three decades.
Last year, nearly 55,000 people gathered to celebrate the centennial Epiphany. They huddled under blankets and wool hats to stay warm.The water was even colder in 2005, when five divers had to be treated for respiratory problems, said Donald Sayre of Tarpon Springs Fire Rescue.
But on Saturday, the morning air hung hot, steaming people who lined the downtown streets, gathered on the grass and clustered around the cathedral.
Humidity was so heavy that the choir robes and police uniforms drooped, everyone’s forehead beaded with sweat.
“Our theme this year was to bring it back to the community,” Gombos said.
This year’s celebration drew about 20,000 onlookers, police said.
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Earlier in the morning, twin brothers Mike and Chris Kavouklis, 17, stood on the platform assessing the conditions of the bayou, nervous and clenching their fists.
For their second dive, both had revised strategies.
“I’m a little more confident because I know what to expect,” said Chris, who planned to keep his head underwater and his eyes open.
“I got over there really quick, but I couldn’t hold my breath,” he said.
Mike was intent on getting a faster start and selecting a better dinghy, because he was in one that was overloaded and sank last year.
“I was a little fazed last year. I was soaking up the moment and didn’t get a good jump,” he said.
Both boys laughed at their cousin Mark Garcia, 16, a first-time diver who woke up early to do practice laps in their grandmother’s pool.