TARPON SPRINGS — Ilias Skandaliaris had a feeling in his gut over the last few nights. He was restless, couldn't sleep.
Even so, he said he never could have imagined the "huge blessing" that would come to him on Sunday afternoon.
From the crowd of 55 boys who jumped from dinghies into Spring Bayou during St. Nicholas Cathedral's 113th Epiphany celebration, Skandaliaris, 17, emerged from the waters grasping the wooden cross tossed in by His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
It is a feat that tradition says brings a year of blessings to the cross retriever, the highlight of the event commemorating the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist in the Jordan River.
To Skandaliaris, born in Kalymnos, Greece, and raised in Tarpon Springs since he was 3, it was a moment that brought him to tears of joy after years watching others receive the honor.
"I feel like it's a dream," Skandaliaris said. "Everything is a blur, everything is fast, everything is love."
The largest Epiphany celebration in the Western Hemisphere brought an estimated 22,000 people to downtown Tarpon Springs on the cloudless and cool Sunday, according to spokesperson Johanna Kossifidis.
The day began as it does every year, with an 8 a.m. Mass and Divine Liturgy at St. Nicholas that lasts almost four hours.
As Greek chanting reverberated through the sanctuary's high, decorated ceilings, Stavroula Christesson, 73, lit a candle symbolizing prosperity outside the door.
"It's good for your health," said Christesson.
A procession then made its way to the Spring Bayou, with clergy, hierarchs, dignitaries and parishioners surrounded by choir members and folk dancers in traditional garb. The sight brings people from Greece and beyond to Tarpon Springs. Craig Theros, supreme governor of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association traveled from Ann Arbor, Mich., to experience Tarpon's Epiphany, "an item on my bucket list."
Sophia Carafotes had always observed Epiphany at home in Boston by attending Mass and baking her grandmother's tsoreki bread, made with a coin in the batter to offer the finder a year of blessings. Now retired, she said it was time to travel to Tarpon Springs to experience the life changing event in the flesh.
"This represents a new beginning, a new start with the new year," Carafotes said.
After the Archbishop blessed Spring Bayou with a dozen clergy at his side, and thousands of spectators dotting the grass around the water, Stella Bilirakis, 15, released a dove into the air to symbolize the Holy Spirit flying over the bayou.
St. Nicholas reserves the cross dive only for boys 16 to 18, one of the few if not the only Greek Orthodox churches in the U.S. to bar girls. Every year, one girl is selected from the choir with the honor of releasing the dove before the dive.
When the archbishop tossed the cross into the 70-degree water, the 58 boys dove in. Skandaliaris said when he came up for his first breath of air, he saw bubbles where the wooden cross lined with lead had sunk. He went under and saw the white cross at the bottom of the roughly 10-foot bayou, grabbed it "and just jumped up" as boys flailed around him.
The boys carried Skandaliaris on their shoulders through a cheering hoard of thousands back to the church as he held the cross above his head.
"Axios!" they chanted, meaning worthy.
Attendees filtered into nearby Craig Park, a waterfront oasis west of the bayou, for the Glendi festival.
The park came alive as families sunned themselves on blankets by the waterfront and lines snaked behind tents selling gyro meat, stuffed grape leaves and Greek salad with potatoes. It was the first time in 12 years the Glendi had been held in the park, a welcome change for the public after years of the festival being held in and around the church hall.
"You get great weather, and you get more people," said Tommy Mahninis, 51, who came by boat with a friend. But inside the church, Skandaliaris was still trying to fathom what had just happened to him.
A Tarpon Springs High School student and football player, Skandaliaris said the weight of the responsibility to be a cross retriever was not lost on him.
"Indescribable, I never thought I would have this moment," he said.
Christian Chrysakis, 19, who retrieved the cross last year, said the experience is something that can't properly be put into words. It has to be experienced to be understood.
Since retrieving the cross in 2018, Chrysakis, of Tarpon Springs, went on to Brevard College in North Carolina on a football scholarship but returned to his hometown after a concussion ended his athletic career.
Now a student at St. Petersburg College, Chrysakis said the experience of retrieving the cross has shaped him as an adult and prepared him for his future.
"It slowed me down, it changed the way I look at life," Chrysakis said. "When I touched the cross in the water, I had an out of body experience. I try to talk about it to other people and they can't understand. We are all in a brotherhood now."
Sunday's cross retriever was born in Kalymnos, Greece and 55 boys dove for the cross during St. Nicholas Cathedral's 113th Epiphany celebration. An earlier version of this story had the incorrect birth city and number of divers.