How deep the faith? How deep the bayou?
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How deep the faith? How deep the bayou?
STAFF PHOTO / THOMAS BENDER
Pantelis Kontodiakos, 17, of Tarpon Springs retrieves the Greek
Orthodox Cross from Spring Bayou during Epiphany celebrations Tuesday
in Tarpon Springs. About 60 boys ages 16 to 18 were diving for the cross.
By Thomas Becnel
Published: Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 1:36 a.m.
TARPON SPRINGS - A punter survived the scramble at the bottom of
Spring Bayou, holding his breath and then rising to the surface with
a Greek Orthodox cross clutched in his fist.
Pantelis "Pete" Kontodiakos, a major college football prospect at
Countryside High School, kicked his way past more than 60 other boys
in the Tuesday afternoon Epiphany celebration. Stamina and
determination helped him come up with the cross.
"I must have dove four or five times," he said, still dripping wet
and coughing. "I saw it. I picked it off the bottom in the middle of everyone."
Kontodiakos retrieved the cross 30 years to the day after his father
won the same honor in Tarpon Springs.
"You can't imagine the feeling," said John Kontodiakos, who beamed
and puffed on a cigar. "For us, Greek Orthodox, this is it, the ultimate."
The tossing of the cross is a 103-year-old tradition in Tarpon
Springs, north of St. Petersburg, one of the country's most
concentrated Greek-American communities.
Bookstores sell icons and incense. Bakeries sell baklava, floyeres
and paximathia. At a dance in the Spanos/Pappas Community Center,
music is by the Sons of Pericles.
The grassy banks of Spring Bayou form a natural amphitheater for the
Epiphany celebration, which draws thousands of locals and tourists each year.
Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of
America, tossed the cross in the bayou. Later he congratulated divers
at St. Nicholas Cathedral.
"The cross is a common gift for all of you," he said.
Outside the church, people gathered around the bronze statue of a
young diver with his arm raised, cross silhouetted in the sky.
Most of the cross divers are from Tarpon Springs, but some come from
surrounding parishes in the Greek Orthodox Church.
Last year, a Tampa diver named Chris Kavouklis retrieved the cross.
This year, a Sarasota diver named Steven Birakis tried his best.
"I got pretty close," he said, "but no dice."
Birakis, a 17-year-old junior at Lakewood Ranch High School, attends
St. Barbara's Greek Orthodox Church. He knows many of the Florida
divers through GOYA -- Greek Orthodox Youth of America.
"I'm the first one in, like, seven years to dive for my church,"
Birakis said. "Everyone always talks about it, the older guys, your parents."
Not just anyone can dive for the cross.
Boys must be 16 to 18 years old. They must be active in the church.
They must write an essay about what the Epiphany means to them.
"They scope you out completely," Birakis said.
Most divers need no encouragement. The tossing of the cross is a rite
of passage for Greek-American boys. They grow up waiting for their chance.
"When you're young, you play 'Epiphany' in the pool," Birakis said,
laughing. "You can't deny it."
'That tingling feeling'
Tony Grigoris, a Tarpon Springs native, got the cross in 1983, when
he was 17 years old. It was his second try.
"The first year I swam out to the ripple and then went down," he
says. "The next year I decided to go under a few feet from the
ripple. I met it as it was sinking to the bottom.
"Finally, I came up for air. They started recognizing me, calling my
name. My mom was in tears."
Grigoris, who runs a Tarpon Springs advertising agency, doesn't have
to grasp for these details. This was a dream come true.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," he said. "It's weird -- you
remember that tingling feeling. The hair on my arm is sticking up
right now, just talking about it."
Grigoris still wears the gold crucifix he earned that day. An
inscription reads "Epiphany 1983."
He hopes his 12-year-old son, Emmanuel, will retrieve the cross one
day. There's no better way to make a name for yourself in Tarpon Springs.
"I wouldn't say you're a celebrity," Grigoris said, "but people know
who you are."
Kisses and cash
Epiphany divers wear swimsuits and white T-shirts with blue crosses.
They swim out to dinghies roped in a semicircle on Spring Bayou. And they wait.
This is an ordeal on chilly January days, but this year the weather was ideal.
The white-bearded archbishop led prayers and chants. He watched a
white dove soar above the crowd. And he tossed a white-painted wooden
cross into the bayou, which is no more than 8 feet deep.
The boys swam furiously and then dove to where the cross sank. No one
rose in triumph. They dove again, with the crowd screaming and
pointing where it might have drifted. Nothing.
Finally, more than half a minute after the toss, Kontodiakos came to
the surface. He thrust the cross into the air. The crowd cheered.
He returned to to shore, surrounded by well-wishers. Slaps on the
back, kisses on the cheek. The archbishop handed him a trophy and
placed a crucifix around his neck.
Fellow divers carried him down Tarpon Avenue to St. Nicholas
Cathedral. Friends and family stopped to kiss him along the way.
"Check your cell phone, Pete," one of the divers shouted. "The girls
are calling you."
Kontodiakos looked stunned, accepting congratulations and trying to
smile for dozens of cameras. Friends helped him hold the cross and
trophy high above his head. Teary relatives pressed close.
"I feel great," he told reporters and television crews. "Great
feeling. Greatest feeling in the world."