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Young divers can hardly wait

They are altar boys. A football star. The biggest child ever born at Morton Plant Hospital, 17 years later. An Epiphany baby and the class brain.

Boastful and shy, loud and reverent, athletic and scrawny, this gang of 45 Greek Orthodox teenagers will dive for the cross Thursday at the 99th Epiphany celebration. One will retrieve the handmade wooden cross, said to bring a year of divine blessing.

It's a tradition shared by generations of Greek Orthodox men in the Tampa Bay area, with fathers and uncles telling stories of their dives and younger boys dreaming of the day it will be their turn.

"It's what the big boys did when we were little," said Chris Zervos, 16, of Tarpon Springs, who will make his first dive on Thursday.

"We watch it every year. Yeah, we grow up thinking about this," said Milty Kerdemelidis, 17, a senior at Tarpon Springs High who was chosen to read his Epiphany essay Sunday to the congregation at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

For months these divers, ages 16 to 18, have prepared, first proving their worthiness to the church by writing a personal essay about Epiphany and studying with priests. On Sunday morning, a few met at Craig Park to assemble the nine borrowed dinghies in a perfect arc around the dock in Spring Bayou.

A wide-eyed little brother watched carefully, soaking in what the big boys did and what he will do when he is 16. Older brothers boasted about how cold it was when they dived. Dads and the two men who organize the dive each year marveled at how their classmates' sons were already old enough to dive.

Over and over again, clergy and the dive chairmen, Aleck Alissandratos and Mike Kouskoutis, reiterate that this is not an athletic contest. It's a religious event.

Maybe because it has been drilled into their heads at the catechism class required to make the dive, maybe because they truly believe it, the boys spout out reminders.

"There's no strategy," said Billy Stamas, 17, the one who weighed more than 13 pounds when he was born. "Because there's no luck. Because it's all divine intervention."

But the divers, many who have known each other since birth and will dive with their best friends or cousins, still contemplate which boat has the best track record, which location on the arc gives the best chance to retrieve the cross.

"The sun is the place to be," especially if it's cold, offered Richie Weaver, going on advice from his big brother, Pete. Richie, 16, will make his first dive Thursday.

"How hilarious would it be if I jumped in the water on Thursday with floaties on?" joked Peter Papadimitriou, 18.

Friendly competition and joking aside, the cross dive is a serious matter.

For many, catching the cross is a family tradition.

Costa Kontodiakos, who will turn 18 on Epiphany, is diving for his last time and comes from a line of cross retrievers, including his dad and three uncles.

His mother missed one Epiphany in 23 years, the day her son was born.

While the divers readied the dinghies, veterans told them of the underwater grapple for the cross.

"It gets violent down there, for real," said Stelios Zografakis, a 21-year-old college student who made three dives. He once accidentally kicked his best friend's face.

But scuffles are forgiven because of an unwritten rule: What happens in the water, stays in the water.

Like most of the young men he will dive with on Thursday, Papadimitriou dreamed about his dive as a child on the bayou banks.

"I came out here when I was 5, 6, 7, 8 and said, "Yeah, Mom, I'm going to get the cross,' " the St. Petersburg College student said.

On Sunday, after he finished helping with the boats and took an impromptu dive in the bayou, he wondered what it would be like to be up on the other boys' shoulders if he did retrieve the cross.

"I just got this shivery feeling," he said.

Still, he hesitated to make a prediction. It's enough just to be a part of the day.

"There is no other religion that does this kind of thing. So it's a blessing" simply to dive, Papadimitriou said. "But if you caught it ."

It's a thought that has sent generations of young men to Spring Bayou in awe. This year is no different. After Papadimitriou turned in his dive application at the cathedral, he went to Spring Bayou, kneeled down on the dock and said a prayer.

Nora Koch can be reached at nkochsptimes.com or (727) 771-4304.

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