TARPON SPRINGS — Valantis Kouros' biggest regret is that he didn't dive when he was 16 years old. He was a little under the weather that day and opted to stay out of the frigid waters of Spring Bayou.
Now 18 and on the threshold of his second and final attempt to retrieve the coveted white cross, Kouros turns his thoughts to tradition and the blessings of the annual ritual.
"For more than a hundred years, we have been seeking God's blessing through this dive," said Kouros, a senior at Tarpon Springs High.
"Just being one of the boys diving is going to bring blessings to us all. We all want the cross, but we know that it is in God's will that only one of us will get it. But we all will be blessed."
Today marks the 104th Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs. It begins with an 8 a.m. service at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, and between 12:15 and 1 p.m., nearly 70 boys ages 16 to 18 will huddle on dinghies in Tarpon Springs' Spring Bayou before a white cross is tossed into the murky waters.
In frantic pursuit, the boys will dive for a cross that many receivers say glows in the water. It's a ritual that symbolizes Jesus' baptism in the River Jordan.
While many traditions have up and down years, especially when it involves the will of youth, the tradition and the quest to dive for the cross in Tarpon Springs remain strong.
"In this community, it's a rite of passage for young men," said Nomikos Michael Kouskoutis, who has coordinated the divers for 24 years. "My son who is 14, for the last few years, he and his friends pretend they are diving for the cross when they are in the swimming pool."
Kouskoutis, 52, dove for the cross in 1976 and '77. He said Tarpon's celebration is the largest in the United States and likely the world.
"In Greece, everyone celebrates it so you have a lot of small ceremonies," Kouskoutis said. "You don't have the enormity that we have here."
For last year's cross receiver, diving for the cross was a way of life.
"If you are Greek Orthodox, you have a deep family background of divers," said Pete Kontodiakos, 18, as he stood Monday at the edge of Spring Bayou for the first time since receiving the cross.
"My father dove, my grandfather dove, my uncles, all the men in my family that I can remember have dove for the cross," he said.
Kontodiakos points to his success as a freshman punter on Colorado State's football team as a small indication of the blessing that was bestowed upon him during the year. One week, he was named the conference special teams player of the week after a 76-yard punt.
"Playing Division I football and starting as a freshman and to be able to perform at a good level is a blessing," Kontodiakos said. "So, I'll say I'm blessed. But I've always felt that I've been blessed."
For the third year, Peter Kouskoutis, 14, will help his father with the divers. The Tarpon Springs Middle School student will shadow his father's every step. The two will make sure that the dinghies are still in place, and that the divers are on time and where they need to be.
Peter Kouskoutis too is preparing for the day that he will take a plunge into Spring Bayou in search of the cross that brings added blessings.
"I like how all the town gets together and watches the event and the Greek culture behind it," he said. "One day, it's going to be me jumping in the water and on the dinghy."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4174