2009 Epiphany cross diver's father stripped of honor in 1979

TARPON SPRINGS — It turns out the feel-good story of this year's Epiphany Day may not feel so good after all.

Pantelis J. "Pete" Kontodiakos, 17, was following in his father's footsteps 30 years earlier when he retrieved the Epiphany cross from Spring Bayou, his father, John, said Tuesday.

But that turns out to be only part of the story.

What John Kontodiakos didn't say Tuesday is that he was stripped of the honors in 1979 after church officials determined he was ineligible to dive. That year's honors were given to another boy in a ceremony the following day.

In newspaper articles from that year, the leader of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, the late Father Tryfon Theophilopoulos, said cathedral officials determined he was over the age of eligibility and did not register to dive.

At the time, the maximum age for divers was 19. Kontodiakos was 20.

Kontodiakos himself admitted he was overage to a St. Petersburg Times reporter on Epiphany Day 1979, when he said "I sort of tricked them on this one."

On Tuesday, Kontodiakos recalled his 1979 dive this way:

"Back when I got the cross I made a wish. The wish was that if I ever had a son that he'd get to have that same experience and now, it's so much more incredible."

On Thursday, the elder Kontodiakos declined to discuss the specific allegations, but said he still considers himself to be the true retriever of the 1979 cross.

"Back then, there was a misunderstanding. Some people got their feelings hurt and it ended up blowing up into something that was really, really unnecessary," said Kontodiakos, 50. "I'd rather just leave things where they are."

But the allegations against Kontodiakos went further than his eligibility. Tryfon, who died in 2005, said in 1979 that Kontodiakos and two or three other boys were part of a "conspiracy" to take the cross from Basil Assimack, 19 at the time.

"They almost drowned him. And they stole the cross from him. St. Paul says that the honest and the good athlete should be crowned, not the deceitful and shrewd," Tryfon said.

Assimack, who couldn't be reached for comment Thursday, said in 1979 that he had the cross in his grasp but was then attacked.

"I initially had the cross underwater and it was taken from me without me being able to lift my head,'' he said. "People were holding my head. I couldn't actually tell who was hitting me and holding me down."

John Kontodiakos said Thursday that the issue was blown out of proportion 30 years ago.

"You have a lot of bodies in a real small area ... so, picture me trying to come up (out of the water) and I can't come up and you need to come up and you do some things you normally wouldn't do," he said.

He characterized his relationship with Assimack as a good one.

"There's no animosity there," he said.

But Tryfon, the beloved spiritual leader of the cathedral for three decades, clearly was disturbed by the incident, judging by his comments in a Jan. 13, 1979, article.

"(Kontodiakos) ignored his elders, and we have learned to respect our elders and our church," the priest said. "He ignored all these things."

In the same article, Tryfon told a reporter that cathedral officials had proof of the conspiracy through pictures taken by an amateur photographer. Tryfon declined to release the photos to the Times, saying "the people would prefer to have things calm down. ... It's time to act like Christians and forgive and forget."

Cathedral leaders established new rules for the 1980 Epiphany because of the problems with the previous dive.

A new age limit was enacted, which required boys be between the ages of 16 and 18. To register, boys would have to provide proof of age and undergo lessons on the meaning of the cross dive and proper etiquette, Tryfon said, to avoid the embarrassment of the previous year.

The day after the 1979 Epiphany, church leaders "voted unanimously to bestow the honors" on Assimack, the Times reported. He received a blessing during a service at a Tampa cathedral.

Cathedral officials confirmed Thursday that Assimack is the cross retriever of record for 1979. Cathedral dean Father Michael Eaccarino said Thursday he had never heard about the 1979 controversy.

But he stressed the incident should not reflect poorly on this year's dive.

"It had nothing to do with luck, nothing to do with athleticism. It has to do with the providence of God, blessings from above. It has nothing to do with human actions," he said. "God's blessing came upon Pete and he's the one who put his hand on that cross."

Rita Farlow can be reached at farlow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4162.

2009 Epiphany cross diver's father stripped of honor in 1979 01/08/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 11:03pm]

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