The boys leaned forward in their boats on Spring Bayou, poised to leap as soon as the white cross flipped into the air. • Some wrapped their arms around their shivering chests. Some rubbed their hands together. Others clenched their fists, muscles taut, ready to spring.
It was one of the coldest Epiphany celebrations in years, but nothing would stop the boys from their chance at a year of blessings.
"You only get three opportunities in your life," diver Frankie Giallourakis, 17, said before the plunge.
From the thrashing of limbs and waves would emerge 18-year-old Christian Chrysakis, slack-jawed as he thrust the white cross above his head.
"This is the best feeling I’ve ever had in my life," the Tarpon Springs High senior said afterward.
Chrysakis was one of 57 boys to jump into the bayou Saturday in the 112th Epiphany Celebration to commemorate the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. The boys, ages 16 to 18, are all members of Greek Orthodox churches. Tradition says the boy to retrieve the cross receives a year of blessings from God.
The event in Tarpon Springs, hosted by St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, is said to be the largest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. It drew about 14,000 people on Saturday, a few thousand fewer than expected due to the cold weather, said spokeswoman Johanna Kossifidis.
Temperatures hovered in the 30s and 40s through the morning. Spectators came wrapped in blankets, pockets stuffed with hand warmers, holding coffee cups with gloved hands. Some doubted they could stick it out until the dive.
"We’re trying to see if we’re going to make it," said Tarpon Springs resident Rosa Ferrera, sporting gloves and a long coat sitting at the edge of the bayou.
Michael Kouskoutis, coordinator for the Epiphany divers, warned the boys in the hours leading up to the plunge.
"If at anytime you feel sick, queasy, unsteady because of the affects of weather, do not be embarrassed if you cannot participate," he said. "You’re still a diver."
They had been offered wet suits but turned them down in the name of tradition. Organizers added more emergency personnel just in case, and thermal blankets were ready to engulf the boys as soon as they came out of the water.
By the time the procession started toward the bayou about noon, temperatures had warmed to the 50s and sunlight filtered out through thin clouds. The water temperature sat at 60 degrees, officials said.
Kiersten Spanos, the 15-year-old Tarpon Springs High sophomore chosen as the ceremony’s dove bearer, released a dove into the crisp air. Metropolitan Alexios Panagiotopoulos of Atlanta blessed Tarpon Springs as the boys waited in the boats. He took over the duty from Archbishop Demetrios, who couldn’t make it from his home in New York due to weather.
The metropolitan tossed the cross, and the boys were off. They waded in the shallow water and dunked under again and again. One boy shouted a plea to last year’s winner, who stood on a platform overlooking the bayou.
"Where is it?" he yelled.
"It’s right under y’all!" Joseph Cooley, 19, yelled back.
The experience sent Chrysakis’ adrenaline "through the roof," he said later as his parents, Haven and Emmanuel, and 14-year-old brother, Michael, beamed beside him. His great-grandfather and cousin were previous cross winners.
"I was apprehensive," Haven Chrysakis said of the weather, "but it’s a rite of passage."
The win was extra special to his grandmother, Naomi Chrysakis, 68. For the last decade, her late husband, Chris, bought gold cross necklaces and donated them to the church to give to the winning boy. She continued the tradition after his death, long enough to watch a necklace go to her grandson.
"I told Christian, ‘Your papou is smiling in heaven,’" she said, using the Greek word for grandfather. "It’s a great honor."
Staff writer Piper Castillo contributed to this report. Contact Kathryn Varn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.