(ran North, South editions of Pasco Times)
Beneath the murky bayou waters, visibility was just two feet, but the white wooden cross glowed gold.
With the sun shining over the 99th Epiphany celebration Thursday, Andrew McAdams III dived into Spring Bayou with 42 other Greek Orthodox boys.
He came up once and went back down into Spring Bayou. Then he saw the cross, glowing underwater as it reflected the sun's rays.
"I've never gripped anything so tight in my life," said the 17-year-old Palm Harbor boy, a star football and soccer player at Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa.
When he emerged from the 65-degree water, still clutching the prize, last year's cross retriever reached from the platform to present the trophy.
It was his cousin, James Hughes.
"I'm proud to pass the trophy off to you," Hughes later said back at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Hughes of Belleair also is in the 11th grade at Berkeley Prep and is two days older than McAdams. The two are fifth cousins, but say they feel as close as brothers.
An estimated 18,000 people flocked to Tarpon Springs for the Epiphany celebration, the world's largest observance outside of Greece.
The day commemorates Christ's baptism in the Jordan River and is one of the holiest on the Greek Orthodox calendar.
Epiphany is a celebration focused on water, and this year the ceremony took on a somber tone at times while the faithful paused to remember the tsunami tragedy in Southeast Asia. During his Divine Liturgy sermon, His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios spoke about how survivors of the disaster need clean drinking water.
"Think about the destructive factor of the water, but then think about the saving factor of the water," he said.
As always, the day's religious pageantry and processions built to the dramatic cross dive into Spring Bayou minutes before 1 p.m.
Family and friends of the divers, flocks of the faithful and throngs of tourists crowded around the bayou, cheering and yelling. Some held hand-lettered signs. One family waved a banner wishing a happy 18th birthday to Epiphany baby Costa Kontodiakos.
For about 20 seconds, the 43 divers searched and splashed before McAdams emerged with a wide smile and the cross.
"Once I got the cross, my whole body kind of went numb," the son of Andy and Dede McAdams said. "I couldn't move."
Wet and chilly, he stumbled to the dock and knelt at the archbishop's feet for a blessing. His mother pushed through the crowd.
"That's my baby," Dede McAdams cried, as the other divers cleared a path through the media so she could hug her only son.
Andrew's cousin handed him the trophy. Another cousin and fellow diver Louis Michaelos and longtime friend Peter Papadimitriou hoisted him on their shoulders and paraded back to the cathedral. The other boys flanked him on all sides, patting him on the back and cheering.
As the group trekked up Orange Street, Michael Kouskoutis, one of the organizers for the cross dive and a diver himself in the 1970s, joined the procession for a moment to kiss the cross.
Greek Orthodox boys here grow up dreaming of their day to dive. As children, Andrew and his cousins would sit together on Epiphany and think about when it would be their turn.
On the eve of his second dive, he was still dreaming.
"Last night in bed, my heart was pounding," he said.
After retrieving the cross, the Berkley Prep star goalkeeper thought he would probably have to miss a soccer game.
"For this reason, it's nothing at all," he said. "I could miss the state championships for this."
With one cousin welcoming Andrew into the exclusive fraternity of cross retrievers, and another carrying him into the cathedral, a wide-ranging extended family was elated for the second year in a row.
"It's great that it stayed in the family. We had two opportunities, and we got it," said Michaelos, 18, who made his third and final dive Thursday.
It'll be a few years before the next family member dives, but Michaelos is predicting their blessing will continue.
"We've got a whole wave coming up. This is going to be a dynasty," he said.
Back at the cathedral after the signature event, the divers, friends, parents and others showered Andrew with congratulatory embraces and the cross with reverent kisses, its white paint now marked with carnation pink lipstick.
"As you know, one gets the cross," Archbishop Demetrios said to the boys kneeling around him at the altar. But he blessed them all and said he would tell of Tarpon Springs' dive tradition everywhere he goes.
To Andrew, he gave a special blessing.
To the others, the archbishop said, "See you next year!"
Nora Koch can be reached at nkochsptimes.com or (727) 771-4304.
Stavro Damianakis, 8, of New Port Richey gazes at painted ceilings during a service Thursday at Tarpon Springs' St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
Andrew McAdams III, 17, of Palm Harbor recovers the cross from Spring Bayou on Thursday during the 99th annual Epiphany celebration. More than 40 boys competed in the dive.
Victoria Mahairas, left, and Stefano Mahairas watch dancers Thursday at the Glendi festival. They performed with the St. George Dance Group of New Port Richey.
More than 40 boys, ages of 16 and 18, gather Thursday in front of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs to march in the Epiphany Parade to Spring Bayou, where they will dive for a cross. According to local lore, the youth who retrieves the cross gets a year of good luck.
Andrew McAdams III, 17, of Palm Harbor is carried into St. Nicholas on Thursday after recovering the white wooden cross during the 99th annual Epiphany celebration at Spring Bayou.
From left, Katie Baker, 16, Alex Economou, 15, and her twin sister, Stephanie, and Kelli Maida, 16, all of East Lake, huddle under towels in a rain shower before the cross dive at the Epiphany celebration.