First-time diver Vassilios Harding, 16, crouched Sunday atop an overturned dinghy in Spring Bayou. He worried the position put him at a disadvantage in diving with 46 other Greek boys for the Epiphany cross.
"I want this," he thought to himself, "and I want this bad."
Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, blessed the waters, then dropped the coveted cross into Spring Bayou.
Ahead of the other divers, churning through the water, Vassilios reached the bobbing white cross within seconds.
"God actually puts it in your hand," he said.
Unlike last year, Sunday's 107th Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs had one clear victor. Last year, the boys diving for the cross couldn't find it, so a second was thrown into the water. Both crosses were then found and four boys eventually were named winners.
This year, organizers vowed to throw only one cross — and one that wouldn't sink.
Emmanuel Gombos, who has assisted with Epiphany preparations for years, acknowledged that this year's cross was not so weighted.
"We knew it was going to float," he said. "We made sure it was done quickly and found quickly."
Thousands gathered to watch the cross dive, the centerpiece of Tarpon's annual Jan. 6 Epiphany celebration, which is considered the largest in the western hemisphere. The event commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John the Baptist.
Bells tolled early Sunday to mark the beginning of Epiphany. At 8 a.m., local and national Greek Orthodox clergy led the orthos and divine liturgy at the overflowing St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral downtown.
The services concluded with blessings and prayers for the 47 Greek boys ages 16 to 18 who would contend for the cross. Organizers had announced that 48 boys would dive, but one had a conflict and couldn't participate.
Clad in swim trunks and white T-shirts, the barefoot boys waited on the steps of the church for a procession to the bayou.
As his parents stood nearby holding his towel, Michael Vlamakis, 17, of Palm Harbor, tried to imagine what the dive would be like.
"I feel like it would be almost like experiencing the baptism of Christ again," he said. "It's like a leap of faith."
Cheered by the crowd, the boys thundered toward the bayou and jumped in feet-first, some hitting the bottom. They lumbered into the dinghies anchored in a semicircle. They crossed themselves as the archbishop spoke more blessings from a platform beside the bayou.
"Once you're in the water, your eyes are locked on the archbishop," said Andreas Paloumpis, a 17-year-old Hillsborough High senior from Tampa who dove Sunday. "You're just ready. Once the cross falls … you don't think about anything else."
When the triumphant Vassilios closed his hand around the cross, the other boys immediately raised his arm from the water and shouted his name.
"It was really courteous and they really upheld our values," said Paloumpis, a second-year diver. "And everyone who dived is a great emissary of the church."
The divers took up Vassilios on their shoulders and carried him back to the church. Gripping a trophy in his other hand, Vassilios never loosened his clutch on the cross.
"Hold it up," last year's cross retrievers advised him. "Keep it high."
Axios! people clamored. He is worthy.
Vassilios, the son of Tina and Spanos Harding, is the first in his family to retrieve a cross. His father and uncle both dove three times unsuccessfully. Cousins Louis Mailisand and Miros Petru won recognition as cross retrievers last year.
One of his sisters, 9-year-old Erasmea, proudly called Vassilios a loving sibling. "He's good at teaching me all the things I need for growing up," she said.
The boy who retrieves the cross is said to receive a year of blessings. Dripping wet and shaking, Vassilios stood inside the church and said, "I want it to be the best year of my life."
The Tarpon Springs High junior settled on a simple first wish: to see his father soon.
Spanos Harding, a commercial fishing boat captain, was working in Key West Sunday. He scrambled to watch the dive online but couldn't find any live videos. All he could do was send a text telling Vassilios that he loved him and knew he would be successful.
Soon, Harding's phone started ringing with congratulatory calls. Vassilios cried as he told reporters that he wanted to drive to Key West the next day to see his father.
"I love you, boy," Harding told his son over the phone Sunday. "I'm so proud of you. Thank you for being who you are."
Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-415.