TARPON SPRINGS — Boys who plucked crosses from Spring Bayou during last year's Epiphany celebration say that, true to custom, blessings definitely flowed their way.
Tradition dictates that they hand off the cross diving honors at this year's event, Tarpon Springs' 107th Epiphany celebration on Jan. 6.
"It's going to be an honor to be able to pass on the cross and the trophy to the next retriever," said Alexi Lake, one of the boys named winners of last year's unprecedented four-winner cross dive. "It's a blessing."
The cross dive, Epiphany's centerpiece event, will undergo changes this year, as will other parts of the day's celebration.
Typically, only one boy emerges from the murky waters with the cross. But last year, Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, threw a second cross after the first one he had tossed into the bayou couldn't be found.
Louis Mailisand retrieved the second cross. However, some divers kept searching for the first one, and Mailisand's cousin, Miros Petru, found it. Hours later, organizers determined that Mailisand had grabbed the cross away from another boy, Jared Alissandratos.
Three days later, after photos and videos surfaced on social networking and media sites, church officials announced that they had already determined that the second cross was snatched away from Alexi Lake during an above-water tussle.
So four winners eventually were declared. To avoid a repeat, organizers vow to throw only one cross this time.
"We don't want to get into the confusion we had last year," said dive co-coordinator Mike Kouskoutis. "When we've had problems finding the first cross, historically they've always thrown a second. But the boys will just have to work that much harder this year if they can't find it."
Epiphany celebrates the baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan by St. John the Baptist, and the dive is a long-anticipated rite of passage into manhood for Greek boys ages 16 to 18. Tarpon's celebration is one of the largest in the western hemisphere.
The other major change to the upcoming celebration is a shift in the location of the glendi, or Greek festival, to Craig Park, which is immediately adjacent to the bayou. It was previously held at a community center located a half-mile away.
"We're just gearing up to give them the best service possible so they can enjoy the day right there on site," said Father Michael Eaccarino of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
The Sunday evening glendi caps a weekend of celebration, starting at noon Saturday with Greek Orthodox leaders blessing boats, businesses and the waters lining the Sponge Docks.
Saturday night, a Greek dance festival features traditional music, costumes and food.
Sunday morning's solemn church liturgy will be followed by a noon procession in which dove bearer Evelyn Bilirakis will lead the boys to the waters where they dive for the cross.
Epiphany publicity chair Johanna Kossifidis said organizers expect as many as 17,000 locals and visitors — a larger than normal turnout — because the holiday falls this year on a weekend. Eaccarino said, though, that it's also possible that the day of the week might have the opposite effect on attendance.
"Because it's on a Sunday this year, all the other churches will celebrate in their own locale. If it's any other day than Sunday, then they close and all come to Tarpon," Eaccarino said. "We can't expect everyone to travel a long distance, so they'll celebrate in their own churches and then come to Tarpon for the diving of the cross."
Reflecting on the last year, both Lake, a 17-year-old senior at Gulf High School in Pasco County, and Alissandratos, a 17-year-old sophomore at Tarpon High, recounted how luck had rained over them this year, especially in the area of academics.
Alissandratos said he saw the most improvement in biology and algebra, while Lake said A's have taken place of the few B grades he'd been earning in his advanced placement courses.
Lake says he also was inducted into the National Honor Society, received multiple scholarships and is slated to begin pre-dentistry classes at the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus in fall 2013.
Mailisand and Petru couldn't be reached for comment.
"I'm thankful and grateful to have a year like this," Lake said.
The New Port Richey teen said he believes the new "one cross" rule will enhance the experience for divers by cutting out the controversy.
His advice to this year's divers? Practice makes perfect.
"When you get to the boat and realize you're about to partake and you get in the water and go for the cross, it's exhilarating. It's a panic at first and then you realize you're here for a reason," Lake said. "The experience is a blessing."
Time staff writer Stephanie Wang contributed to this report. Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.