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How deep the faith? How deep the bayou?

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20090107/ARTICLE/901070362/2050/SPORTS?Title=How_deep_the_faith__How_deep_the_bayou__ How deep the faith? How deep the
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 7, 2009

      How deep the faith? How deep the bayou?

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      How deep the faith? How deep the bayou?
      Order photo
      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.

      Sarasota diver

      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."
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