TARPON SPRINGS — The night before Epiphany, 18-year-old Kosta Pseftelis and his friends paid a visit to Spring Bayou to scout out the scene of the annual cross dive. In the moonlit darkness, they peered at the dinghies that were anchored in a semicircle, waiting for the divers to perch on the next day.
This would be Pseftelis' third and final chance to dive for the cross. Next year he'd be too old. He was looking for an edge, and something told him the second boat on the left might give him a prime position.
"Me and my buddies, we went down to the bayou and we all jumped in together," the Tarpon Springs native said. "I just looked at that boat and said, 'I think I'll go for that one this year.' "
It paid off. Pseftelis (pronounced seff-TELL-is) beat out nearly 50 other young divers Tuesday during Tarpon Springs' 109th annual Epiphany observance, retrieving the coveted cross from the waters of the bayou. He managed to grab it quickly after Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, dropped it into the water.
The cross dive was the headline event of the Epiphany celebration, the commemoration every Jan. 6 of the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. Tarpon Springs' colorful daylong celebration, often called the largest in the Western Hemisphere, draws as many as 20,000 Greek Orthodox Christians, locals and spectators from around the world.
Pseftelis, a Tarpon Springs High School graduate and first-year student at St. Petersburg College, dove for the cross previously when he was 16 and tried again when he was 17. Because the event is restricted to Greek Orthodox boys between the ages of 16 and 18, this was his last chance.
"I saw it floating and I just reached out," Pseftelis said as he was mobbed by well-wishers afterward at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. "It's all just a blur. We all jumped in together. You're getting kicked, elbowed. Someone had to come up with it, and I was chosen this year.
"It's so special because when you grow up in this community, this is all you think about. You're diving with your brothers. They're like family."
Thousands gathered to watch the cross dive, in which 49 barefooted boys who live between Sarasota and New Port Richey plunged into Spring Bayou in search of a white wooden crucifix. The boy who retrieves the cross is said to retrieve a year of blessings.
Clad in swim trunks and white T-shirts, the boys first charged into the bayou and pulled themselves onto a series of moored dinghies. One boat flipped. This was the first year that Pseftelis' boat didn't capsize.
Once aboard the dinghies, the boys crossed themselves and assumed stances like sprinters poised at a starting line. Their eyes were locked on the archbishop, who stood on a platform beside the bayou and chanted about redemption, the Holy Trinity and the sanctification of souls. Three news helicopters and two drones watched from overhead during a reading from St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians.
Once the cross dropped into the water, it was all over in a flash.
When the archbishop announced Pseftelis' name and the fact that he was from Tarpon Springs, a huge cheer went up.
Then it was time for a moment of silence. Tarpon Springs continues to mourn police officer Charles Kondek, who was killed in the line of duty Dec. 21. He was shot outside an apartment building that's just a stone's throw from Spring Bayou.
In front of that building Tuesday, a white plastic table was adorned with bouquets and thank-you notes. And the day's Epiphany events were watched over by Tarpon Springs police officers with black bands stretched across their badges.
After the moment of silence, Pseftelis' fellow divers hoisted him on their shoulders and carried him back in triumph to St. Nicholas Cathedral.
Axios! spectators clamored. He is worthy.
Inside the cathedral, the cross retriever was embraced by his parents, Vasilis and Kaliope Pseftelis.
"He's definitely made us a proud family today," his mother said, then added: "Not just today, but lots of times."
"It's a blessing for my son and for the whole family," his father said. "There's no words to explain."
Contact Mike Brassfield at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Follow @MikeBrassfield.