TARPON SPRINGS — In the latest twist to this year's Epiphany celebration, organizers announced Monday that a fourth teen has been named a 2012 cross retriever.
It's the first time in Tarpon Springs' 106-year Epiphany history that this has happened. The unprecedented recognition follows controversy at Friday's religious ceremony, in which three boys — rather than one — were named victors after the annual cross dive into Spring Bayou.
Now 16-year-old Alexi Lake of New Port Richey joins Louis Mailisand and Miros Petru, both 17 and cousins, and 16-year-old Jared Alissandratos. Lake is a junior at Gulf High School in Pasco County; the others attend Tarpon Springs High School.
Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, threw a second cross Friday after the first he had tossed into the bayou couldn't be found. Mailisand retrieved the second cross; then some boys kept searching for the first one, and Petru found it. Hours later, organizers determined that Mailisand had grabbed the cross away from another boy, Alissandratos.
Over the weekend, photos and video surfaced on Facebook, YouTube and local news sites purporting to show Lake lifting the second cross out of the water with both hands before he was dragged down by other divers.
However, Father Michael Eaccarino of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral said Monday that clergy members had already decided last week to honor Lake but didn't announce it because they were still gathering information. Eaccarino is awaiting the delivery of three additional trophies and crosses to be presented during a church ceremony for all the honorees.
"I don't want everyone to think we investigated all these films and YouTube and pictures. This isn't a court of law. This isn't a CSI investigative team," Eaccarino said. "We took what we saw, what everyone saw, what people have shared with us. We made the decision in consensus at the direction of our spiritual leader, our archbishop, that this would be the best way to honor the boys."
Messages of congratulations began filling up Lake's Facebook page after he was notified of the honor Monday morning.
Lake said Monday, "I have no hard feelings toward any of those guys. Having the cross is a huge honor."
But according to Lake, a first-time Epiphany diver who attends Sts. Raphael, Nicholas and Irene Hellenic Orthodox Church in Palm Harbor, the honor was hard-earned.
"It was right underneath the surface, and I grabbed it and lifted it up out (of) the water, … and then it was taken away," said Lake, a former member of his school's swim team. "Being a swimmer, I was prepared for how I should tread water, so when I was pulled under for so long, it got scary. It was hard to breathe."
Dive coordinator Michael Kouskoutis said it's typical for multiple divers to grab the cross at the same time and grapple for it. The difference between past cross dives and this year's is that "generally it's a tussle underwater," he said.
"If you're able to break the water with that cross in the air, there was no question who the retriever was. But when you have two or three people grabbing the cross on top of the water, how do you distinguish who was the retriever?" he said. "So in the spirit of fairness, you would just reward those boys who were able to get their hands on it."
Both Kouskoutis and Eaccarino say a second cross should never have been thrown. That "disobedience" is what caused this year's controversy, Eaccarino said.
"Maybe that is what God wanted — for it not to be found for whatever reason. Or maybe he wanted to send a message to us by not finding it or by delaying the find," Eaccarino said. "Remember, our ways are not his way. God has a plan. And even through the disobedience of the second cross, we have double blessings. Four boys now have blessings."
He added: "I guarantee the rule will be only one cross in the future."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.