TARPON SPRINGS — Meteorologists had forecast a windy, overcast day Monday with temperatures plummeting by the afternoon into the 50s.
But those who attended Tarpon Springs' 108th annual Epiphany celebration weren't worried: Funky weather that almost miraculously clears for the day's centerpiece event, the cross dive in Spring Bayou, has been a regular element of the city's Jan. 6 celebrations.
This year, it was not to be.
By 10 a.m., clouds rolled in, a brief drizzle fell, cold 22 mph winds whipped the crowd and no sunshine appeared to help light the divers' way to the crucifix in the murky water.
However, the chill in the air did little to dampen the spirits of the divers, organizers and thousands of bundled-up spectators who lined Spring Bayou to witness the Greek Orthodox commemoration of the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John the Baptist.
This year, 18-year-old Peter Smith, a Saint Stephen's Episcopal School senior from Ellenton who attends Sarasota's St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church, emerged with the cross from the 62-degree water, a look of disbelief on his face.
Here are some scenes from throughout the day:
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Tarpon Springs is said to have the largest Epiphany celebration in the western hemisphere, drawing dignitaries and celebrants from around the world who light candles inside St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral and pray.
Steven and Helen Doulaveris, both 62, have come to Tarpon Spring for Epiphany off and on for 40 years from Florence, S.C. On Monday, Helen lit a candle and prayed for her 3-year-old grandson, whose mother is concerned about his health.
Mary Kranidis, 45, of Hudson prayed for happiness as well as the health of her husband and elderly parents.
"There's so many beautiful things within the church's liturgical calendar. And this represents a new beginning," said Kranidis, a member of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Port Richey. "The most beautiful thing is that people from the community can celebrate as well."
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Local elected officials are among those who join the crowds in Tarpon Springs each Jan. 6.
Tarpon Springs Mayor David Archie attends Epiphany every year.
"This is always a great day for Tarpon. It's not only a religious holiday but a day when we have plenty of tourists who come and see all the amenities that Tarpon has to offer."
Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, who is Greek Orthodox and grew up in Tarpon Springs, attended the ceremonies Monday. He said he never dived for the cross "because the water was too cold for me. But I was an altar boy and I feel like I got the same blessing. It's good to come home."
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Dove bearer Joi Theophilopoulos posed for pictures in front of St. Nicholas with the divers and last year's cross retriever while the previous year's dove bearer, Evelyn Bilirakis, flitted about her, offering advice and adjusting Joi's robe and hair.
Joi called her role "a cool experience" and "an honor." Stroking the dove's back, she said, "I was nervous at first but (the dove is) seeming calm now."
She crouched to introduce the bird to 2-year-old Angelica Gray of Clermont.
Angelica's mother, 35-year-old Sharon West, said it was the child's first Epiphany: "We're educating her. We're Episcopalian but it's similar. She knows about Jesus but she's learning about baptism today."
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Vasili Makryllos, 16 and a junior at Tarpon Springs High School, said he was feeling excited and nervous about his first dive, but "blessed to be here."
Like the other divers, Vasili said he had prepared himself for the dive by taking communion, going to confession and attending church services. He has waited years for this opportunity.
"As little kids you dream of it," he said. "You see the kids dive and you say wow, I can't wait for our time to shine."
Seventeen-year-old Vasilis Mastrovasilis, also a junior at Tarpon Springs High, was preparing for his second dive.
"Your adrenalin is rushing, your heart rate goes up, you are stuck in the moment, and it's a feeling you can't explain," Vasilis said.
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Last year's cross retriever, Vassili Harding, emerged from the church Monday morning carrying the trophy that would go to this year's retriever. Harding said that some of the divers were showing their nerves, beginning to shake hours before the dive, but others kept their nervousness concealed.
Michael Manis, 18, of Tarpon Springs was there to watch the first dive by his brother Peter, 16.
"It's a great honor," Michael said. "My father caught (the cross) back when he was a teen. It's nice to know our family is keeping up with the tradition."
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Those suffering through the cold during the dive knew a warm room and warm food awaited them at the Glendi, a Greek festival that follows the dive. There, children's Greek dance groups performed while Greek foods and drinks were served. Later, the dance floor would open to everyone.
"As soon as you see the cross pop out of the water, you leave to come here to get food and get a table," said Amanda Lohmann, 19, of Tarpon.
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Spectators lining the streets clapped and cheered Monday as the procession of barefoot divers traipsed the city's cobblestone and paved roads to the bayou.
"Have faith in God and you will get the cross!" one man shouted.
Watching the young men kneel in prayer before the archbishop ordered them into the water, a father bent and whispered to his young son, "That could be you one day."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected]