Peter Smith raises his arms, along with the cross and a trophy, inside St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church.
TARPON SPRINGS – Thousands of people crowded around the bayou on Jan. 6 for the 108th Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs, cheering on the 43 male Greeks ages 16 to 18 who dove into the 62-degree water around 12:30 p.m.
Peter Smith was trying not to think about the cold.
In fact, he was trying to block out the weather completely.
“It’ll be over soon,” he said.
And it was over soon: the 18-year-old Ellenton boy found the Epiphany cross in the Spring Bayou in just 14.7 seconds.
One of the largest Epiphany celebrations in the western hemisphere, the annual event commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, and is highlighted by the cross dive. The retriever of the cross is said to be blessed for a full year until the next Epiphany.
Smith, a senior at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal School in Bradenton and a member of St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church in Sarasota, said his first thought was to make his way into the boat on the far left of the semi-circle, but the plan wasn’t without a hiccup: he made it to his desired boat, but the tousle of the teenage boys flipped the boat nearly seven minutes before the cross was thrown, leaving the boys dangling in the frigid water.
After Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, tossed the cross into the water, it was only a matter of seconds before Smith emerged victorious.
“I kept telling myself ‘just a little bit further, just five more feet’,” he said. “When I finally saw the outline of white, I held it up to my face to make sure.”
As his fellow divers carried him on their shoulders down Tarpon Avenue and to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, Smith retained that look of shock and awe, repeating that he couldn’t believe he’d found the cross.
Smith’s grandmother Nena Assimack, mother Anna and 14-year-old brother Robert were all in the crowd watching him dive, but his father, Bob, was home with the flu and watching on television. As soon as he heard his son had won, Bob was out of bed and driving to Tarpon Springs, Robert said.
Robert, who will be eligible to dive in the 2016 Epiphany celebration, said he isn’t worried about the additional pressure.
“I think I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’m just so excited for Peter.”
Beverly Gotsis has missed only one Epiphany celebration since 1984, but she said she hasn’t seen any significant changes over the years.
“Epiphany is such a beautiful part of the Greek culture,” she said. “Tarpon Springs always remembers that.”
Blanca Ponte had met Smith outside the Spanos-Pappas Community Center the day before when he was picking up his Epiphany shirt.
“I told him I’d say a prayer for him,” Ponte said. “I like to think it worked.”
Smith, who plans to attend Florida Gulf Coast University in the fall, said the dive wasn’t about the winner.
“We’re all friends out there; it’s not about who wins,” he said. “It was a wonderful experience just to dive.”