Jumping feet first into chilly Spring Bayou for the Epiphany cross dive on Monday, Peter Smith had a strategy: Swim to the first dinghy on the left, he thought, noting strong winds that might push the prized cross in that direction.
However, the boat overturned almost immediately, forcing Smith and the other divers in his dinghy to stay in the water for more than 7 minutes until the cross was tossed into the 62-degree bayou.
Though he couldn't get in the boat, Smith, 18, of Ellenton wouldn't be deterred.
He said he started swimming toward the place where the cross landed and was running out of breath when he saw a bright white glow on the bayou floor. He clutched the object, bringing it to his face to make sure it was the Epiphany cross.
Riding back to the church atop his fellow divers' shoulders (and later while signing autographs and posing for photographs with well-wishers), the second-year diver said he was still in disbelief at locating the cross in just 14.7 seconds.
"I'm afraid I'm going to wake up," Smith said, leaning back his head to look at the sky while holding the cross and 2014 trophy high. "I'm still full of adrenalin. I started crying."
The cross dive, in which 43 Greek boys between the ages of 16 and 18 participated, was the headline event of the 108th Epiphany celebration, the commemoration every Jan. 6 of the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John the Baptist.
Tarpon Springs is said to have the largest Epiphany celebration in the western hemisphere. A large crowd of spectators estimated in the thousands bundled up in coats and blankets against a blustery 22 mph wind to watch the dive as Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, tossed the cross.
The day's events began with the 8:30 a.m. arrival of the archbishop, riding in a limousine escorted by police. The bells of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral pealed to announce his arrival.
Throughout the morning, celebrants from far and wide lit candles inside the church and prayed.
After the dive, every seat in the Spanos Pappas Community Center was taken as Glendi festival attendees ate souvlaki, gyros and baklava and costumed children danced to a band playing traditional Greek music.
• • •
While organizers had estimated that as many as 25,000 spectators would be in Tarpon Springs for the Epiphany celebration, the forecast for high winds and plummeting temperatures appeared to have reduced turnout.
The first person to set up his chair at the bayou was Tracy Komninos, 49, of Hudson, who was attending his first Epiphany in Tarpon Springs. By 4 a.m. Monday, he was sitting in his chair beside the bayou.
"I've never come here before. I've always seen it on TV," said Komninos, a Catholic who grew up Greek Orthodox. "I've got a perfect view. It's like tailgating for Epiphany."
After the dive, spectators lining the street shouted Axios! — he is worthy — as Smith's fellow divers carried him to St. Nicholas, where they all kneeled and Archbishop Demetrios placed a necklace with a gold cross around Smith's neck and blessed him.
Smith, a senior at Saint Stephen's Episcopal School in Bradenton and a member of Sarasota's St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church, wasn't the first in his extended family to retrieve the cross. His mother's brother, Basil Assimack, retrieved it in 1979.
Smith's mother Anna, 14-year-old brother Robert and grandmother Nena Assimack watched the cross dive from the shoreline. The family, watching through a zoomed camera lens, at first didn't realize Smith was the victor because organizers said the wrong name.
Home with the flu, his father Bob watched the dive on television, but his son's win got dad out of bed and in the car to head to Tarpon Springs.
Anna Smith said she could feel her son's uncle and namesake, the late Peter T. Assimack, looking down and saying, "Wow." Assimack was a popular Tarpon Springs accountant and fisherman who died from cancer in 1996 at age 35.
She said her son is "a water boy. He fishes like crazy," both commercially and recreationally. That he retrieved the cross is "just a nice blessing for our family," she said.
Added Robert: "It's not necessarily a competition for him. He dove because the whole family loves it and it makes my grandma proud." His brother's victory may mean extra pressure when he dives in two years, but he's not worried because "it's really cool to have a brother accomplish this … to be able to say 'my brother got it.' "
Smith said he's looking forward to the rumored year of blessings that comes with finding the cross as he starts this fall at Florida Gulf Coast University, where he plans to study entrepreneurship and minor in marketing or finance.
"I couldn't be more blessed," he said.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected]