TARPON SPRINGS — Wednesday was an afternoon of firsts for the 104th Epiphany celebration.
In his first dive, Dimitrios Kalogiannis became the first boy in his family and the first from New Port Richey to receive the coveted cross.
A 16-year-old junior at Gulf High School, Kalogiannis is also the first member of St. George Greek Orthodox Church, also in New Port Richey, to receive the cross.
He beat out 65 other boys ages 16 to 18 to retrieve the cross, which brings added blessings to the boy who gets it, according to church beliefs.
"It's a blessing and it's an honor," said Kalogiannis, 16, his eyes beaming as the faithful kissed the cross that he held tightly in his hand. "To be the first from my church, it's an honor. It's an honor for my family."
After a solemn morning church service led by His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, the 66 boys in white T-shirts with blue crosses on the front walked from St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral through downtown to Spring Bayou.
Once there, they got in dinghies and waited for Demetrios to toss the cross into the frigid water.
Once he did, the boys dived in while thousands of spectators, bundled up in scarves and coats, sat at the water's edge and cheered them on.
Seventeen seconds later, Kalogiannis emerged from the water with the cross stiffly raised above his head.
"It's just overwhelming," Georgio Kalogiannis said of his son receiving the cross. "For it to be his first year, and I prayed earlier that he would receive it. It's just overwhelming."
It was a birthday gift for Georgio Kalogiannis, who turned 51 Tuesday. In 1979, he came to United States from Alonissos, Greece. He dived for the cross in his native country but never received it.
"I feel happiness," Georgio Kalogiannis said, his eyes beginning to water.
The ritual symbolizes the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan.
Archbishop Demetrios told the divers that they were a special group for having taken the plunge in the midst of the colder-than-usual temperatures.
It was about 50 degrees in Tarpon Springs. The water's surface temperature was measured at 49 degrees at the time of the dive, but because the bayou is spring fed the water gets progressively warmer toward the bottom.
Still, four of the divers were treated by paramedics after the dive because of the cold conditions.
"All of you are winners," the archbishop told the divers. "By necessity, someone had to get the cross but may the cross be your protector in whatever you do. Now go get warm and get dressed."
Only Orthodox Christian boys, ages 16 to 18, are allowed to dive for the cross.
Wednesday, Valantis Kouros, 18, made his final dive. Though he left the waters without the cross, he said he's still blessed.
"I have mixed feelings, but it was great in that diving in that water and trying to retrieve the victorious sign of the church, there is not a better feeling than that no matter what," Kouros said. "All the boys are blessed in their own way."
Delia Kalogiannis hugged her son tight after he retrieved the cross. She followed him back up Tarpon Avenue as he was hoisted on the shoulders of the other divers.
"He's a great kid," she said. "He really is."
Times staff writer Emily Nipps contributed to this report. Demorris A. Lee can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4174.