TARPON SPRINGS — When Hunter Sakadales’ hand broke through the cold, roiling waters of Spring Bayou on Monday, a few thousand more voices than usual cheered from the banks.
The 114th annual Epiphany celebration brought an estimated 25,000 people, several thousand more than recent years.
They arrived in the chilly, clear morning to join the longstanding Greek Orthodox celebration commemorating the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist. Their numbers were buoyed by two new faces: Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, stopping by ahead of his visit with President Donald Trump, and His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros, who was appointed in June to the post overseeing the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
“What a privilege to find myself here, in Tarpon Springs, among this dynamic Greek community,” Mitsotakis said from a platform overlooking the bayou, standing beside the archbishop. “You keep the flag of Greece flying very high.”
Moments later, the archbishop cast a white wooden cross into the water to start the best known tradition of the Epiphany celebration. Boys aged 16 to 18 dive in, dunking and thrashing with the hope to grab the cross first. The winner, according to tradition, is said to receive a year of blessings.
Of the 57 young men who dove into the water, the 18-year-old Sakadales emerged triumphantly, lifting the cross high above his head. The Tarpon Springs High School student said he has been coming to Epiphany his whole life but he was especially excited about Monday, the last time he would be young enough to dive.
“I knew going into this I was going to want to be able to share the sense of love and brotherhood once I got here,” he said.
As Julie and Tom Sakadales looked on, their son calmly described to reporters the whirlwind 30 seconds underwater that ended with him grasping the cross.
Once it was thrown, he said, he dove down and saw ... nothing.
Then he felt something hit his hand.
Sakadales threw his body on the cross, snatched it up, and swam through flailing bodies to reach the surface.
Breaking through, he screamed, “I got it! I got it!”
His fellow cross divers lifted him up. He was blessed by the archbishop. Reporters surrounded him. He answered questions about his family, about how he slept the night before the dive, about how to spell his name. Then the cameras vanished, and he was left alone, clutching the cross, shaking from the adrenaline and cold water.
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The day began, as always, with a nearly 4-hour service at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, where believers packed the sanctuary and joined in prayers and chants. The crowd only grew when Mitsotakis arrived mid-morning, becoming the first sitting prime minister of Greece to attend the celebration.
Police blocked off the sanctuary, worried about safety as it swelled to capacity. Outside, Georgia Bourlotos of Largo stood facing the church on the fringe of a dense crowd that spilled onto the sidewalk. It was the first Epiphany for the 64-year-old Bourlotos, whose parents are from Greece.
“I’m beyond thrilled,” she said, her eyes welling with tears.
She and her sister were hoping to get into the sanctuary to see the prime minister and archbishop but didn’t arrive in time. They were still letting people inside to light candles in the vestibule, and her sister hoped to sneak in that way. Bourlotos readied her phone to take video of the processional to the Bayou, glowing at the prospect of walking behind the special guests.
Nearby, Cynthia Tsaoussis struggled to push through the crowd, clutching a dove in her hands. Tsaoussis, 25, was chosen to release the snow-white bird over the Bayou, as is tradition for a member of the church choir.
She said she felt calm before the ceremony but still knew it would be an emotional day.
“It’ll all come when the moment comes," Tsaoussis said.
Only boys are allowed to vie for the cross — something unique to the Tarpon Springs celebration among Greek Orthodox churches.
By the water, the large crowd was taxing cell service with their devices. A livestream of the church service stopped and buffered several times.
Spectators began filing in soon after sunrise. They staked out spots on the bayou at dawn, coveting precious patches of sun, with clear views of the rowboats from which the divers would launch after the cross. The air smelled of cigar smoke.
The water was 65 degrees, and the divers walked around barefoot, in shorts and T-shirts, eyeing the bayou hours before their dive.
Ilias Skandaliaris, last year’s victor, hugged a friend on a platform over the water. His advice: “Go with your gut. Go where God tells you.”
The cross dive took place at about 1 p.m., and afterward the crowd moved to the Glendi festival at Craig Park. Lines wrapped around tents advertising spanakopita, baklava and kebobs as a band played dance music.
Michael and Yiota Frangedis were pushing their 13-month-old son, Spiros, in a stroller just as the archbishop drove up in a limousine. He emerged from the car and asked the baby’s name, then pressed a hand to the child’s head in a blessing.
“Very emotional, very touching,” Michael Frangedis, 56, said of the experience, which also fell on his wife’s 42nd birthday. “Just to have someone of that magnitude...”
Then the prime minister arrived. Mitsotakis spent the weekend in Tarpon Springs and is scheduled to visit the White House on Tuesday.
“They make us all very proud,” he said of Tarpon Springs’ Greek community. “It’s a testimony of how Greeks have landed on this part of the world.
“You’ll be headline news in Greece.”