Epiphany cross finding is in God’s hands, divers say

TARPON SPRINGS > The belief in the Greek Orthodox community is that the retriever of the coveted Epiphany cross is handpicked by God.

But just in case God grades on effort, Sotiris Naci, 18, is swimming an hour every day. In his friend’s freezing pool. “So when I jump to the cold waters here, I won’t feel weak,” he said.

Naci isn’t the only cross diver training for Saturday’s dive into the chilly waters of Spring Bayou. Fifty two boys, ages 16 to 18, will dive for the cross thrown into the water during the annual Epiphany ceremony, which commemorates the baptism of Christ in the Jordan River. To prepare, many have been swimming in cold water, exercising and praying.

“God gives effort to you,” Naci said. “You have to give it back.” This will be his first dive into Spring Bayou.

Nicholas Stamas, 17, will dive for the second time. Last year, he prepped with an exercise routine. This year, he is spearfishing. Yes, it’s fun. But he quickly adds that it is diving and requires endurance. He’s also appealing again to a higher power. “Since I’ve spiritually matured, I’ve spent more time praying,” he said. Some others simply think it’s a matter of destiny.

“God chooses who gets the cross before it’s even thrown,” said Anthony Velardocchia, 18. “There’s no training or preparation for that.”

Training is neither encouraged nor frowned upon, said Aleck Alissandratos, cross diver coordinator who retrieved the cross in 1977. He said he tries to emphasize that the boys are participating in an extension of the ceremony, not a sporting event or a battle.

“They’re being typical youths, typical kids,” he said. “Since it has been a lifelong ambition, you know you only get one shot at the gold medal and you’ve got to make it count.”

The cross finds whoever is chosen, said Nikita Karvounis, 16, a sophomore at Tarpon High School. He does admit that he’s gone to Sunset Beach a few times to practice swimming in the cold.