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Epiphany cross retriever had an edge

Anderson Combs, 17, from Hudson, retrieves the cross during Tarpon Spring's 110th Epiphany celebration Wednnesday 1/6/2016.
Anderson Combs, 17, from Hudson, retrieves the cross during Tarpon Spring's 110th Epiphany celebration Wednnesday 1/6/2016.
Published Jan. 7, 2016

TARPON SPRINGS

Anderson Combs stood with several other Greek Orthodox boys in a dinghy, their eyes on the white cross about to be hurled into Spring Bayou.

The teen who retrieves the cross is said to receive a year of blessings. In preparation for the dive, the boys pray. Some strategize about which boat to jump from for the best chances of grabbing the cross.

But Combs had an edge on some of his fellow divers: He is a seasoned swimmer. He has been on the swim team for Hudson High, at one point finishing a 50-yard freestyle in less than 24 seconds. He is also a lifeguard and scuba diver.

Within 10 seconds on Wednesday, Combs, 17, emerged with the cross amid a flurry of teenagers splashing around him.

"It's a blessing," he said. "No one's ever done it in my family. No one's ever retrieved it, so I'm very proud to be able to hold it in my hand."

Combs of Hudson was among 49 boys, ages 16 to 18, who participated Wednesday in the 110th annual Epiphany festivities in Tarpon Springs, often called the largest celebration of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. Epiphany is a Christian ceremony that celebrates the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist in the Jordan River.

The celebration, which concludes with a festival of food, music and traditional Greek dancing, attracts thousands of people, both locally and internationally, to Tarpon Springs. On Wednesday, officials estimated that 20,000 attended.

The day began at 8 a.m. with a four-hour service at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral with Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America.

About an hour later, several of the divers gathered barefoot at the bayou. Some chatted with one another, occasionally embracing. Others leaned against a railing and stared into the water. Earlier in the morning, police said that the water temperature was 62 degrees, with about a foot of visibility.

Among the boys was Peter Manis, a senior at Tarpon Springs High. His strategy was to dive from the boats closest to the platform where the cross would be thrown.

How did he prepare for this day?

"A lot of prayer," Manis said.

The service ended and parishioners left the cathedral and walked toward Spring Bayou for the throwing of the cross. Spectators gathered near the water's edge on blankets and beach chairs.

After a prayer led by Archbishop Demetrios, the boys sprinted down the stairs, jumped into the water and scrambled into the 10 dinghies forming a semicircle.

As the archbishop tossed the cross, the boys jumped off the boats and splashed toward the area where it had fallen.

Combs, who also participated in Epiphany last year, leaped from the first boat on the right. He dived underwater, resurfaced, and didn't see the cross. He plunged back down and spotted it amid the kicks from the other boys. Dirt had begun to cover it when Combs grabbed it.

"I couldn't believe that I had it in my hand," he said. "I had to literally sit underwater … make sure it wasn't anything else. I grabbed it and pushed up as hard as I could and I held it up in the air."

Cheers erupted from the crowd as Combs swam toward the ladder. Back on land, he felt a pang of nausea.

"All the emotions started hitting me," he said.

Combs is a senior at Hudson and attends St. George Greek Orthodox Church in New Port Richey.

Back at St. Nicholas with a towel draped over his shoulders, Combs was surrounded by church members and loved ones as he held the cross in one hand and a trophy in the other. His mother, Anna Combs, was by his side.

"It's just such a blessing for him to take it," she said. "I know that God put that cross in his hand."

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com. Follow @lauracmorel.