Dashing for a cross and fortune in Long Beach

In a Greek Orthodox ceremony, Southland swimmers compete to grab a crucifix and the good luck that tradition says it brings.

Speros Mantas has long known that one day he too would dive for the cross. His uncle successfully dived in Long Beach 14 years ago and caught it. His brother caught it as well, four years ago in the chilly waters of Alamitos Bay.

On Saturday, Mantas, 16, got his chance to leap into the same bay at Mother’s Beach as part of an age-old Greek Orthodox ceremony marking Epiphany. Tradition calls for a high-ranking priest to toss a cross into the water to mark Christ’s baptism. The lore goes that the young man or woman who catches it will enjoy a year of good luck.

Mantas, along with four other youths from Southern California, are vying to find the cross at this celebration held by the Greek Orthodox Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Long Beach, and hundreds of spectators from around the region have come to cheer them on.

Sofia Batshoun, 19, who has competed in school swimming and water polo matches, is intent on beating Mantas and three other boys. She has dived for the cross for four years running. Her sister won it once. The other years, boys have been the ones to hoist it into the air as hundreds on shore cheered.

Now, Mantas, Batshoun and three others wait on the dock in the chilly morning air for His Eminence Metropolitan Gerasimos to throw out the pine cross, painted gold, blue and brown. Mantas, of Anaheim, looks limber in his gray wetsuit. His face is solemn. “It would be amazing to catch it. It would be a good thing,” he says. His brother and uncle are here, along with his mother and father, all rooting for him.

Batshoun, of Garden Grove, decided to wear her sister’s pink-and-purple “good-luck suit” pulled over her own. Her bare shoulders are rounded from swimming. Asked how she prepared for the swim, she quips, “I prayed to God that he stops laughing at me and smiles on me.”

If she can’t win, she says, she is rooting for a third diver, her childhood friend, Nathaniel Coromelas, 17, from the Orange County suburb of Cypress. His grandfather has been ill, she explains, and his brother recently returned from a tour in Iraq and may have to return. “If God wants me to get it, I’ll get it. He knows what is in my future. Otherwise, I want Nathaniel to get it.”

A fourth diver, Harry Koulos, 17, of Long Beach, says this will be his last chance to catch the cross before he leaves for college. This is his fourth try. “I would think it would be a great honor,” Koulos says. But if he loses again, he has high hopes for his younger brother, 9, who plays water polo, and says he would like to return from college to dive with him.

The youngest diver this year is Nicholas Fields, 13, who came from Northridge to compete and nearly missed the ceremony because of traffic. All week, church members have been anticipating the contest and wondering who will win.

“Of course, every year, we are excited about who will win the cross,” says Voula Michail, secretary at Assumption Church. In her hometown in the Greek mountains near Albania, she says, the Epiphany event is held on the shores of the Aliakmonas river. It is an honor just to dive for the cross, she says, and the greatest honor is bestowed on the boy or girl who catches it. In Greece, she says, only boys and young men are allowed to dive. But in the United States, girls have joined the celebration.

“It’s something that’s been happening now for ages, for different generations,” says Tasia Triantos, 20, of Lakewood, who coordinated the diving. “I baby-sit for a lot of kids, and they’re like, ‘Can we dive, Can we dive?’ And I say, ‘You’ve got to be 12.’ “

Mantas’ brother, Polyvious Mantas, 21, who caught the cross four years ago, said good fortune came his way the following year. “Nothing bad happened that year,” he recalls. “I got a new job. Everything was great.”

The church elders arrive, crowding the dock around Gerasimos, who wears a gold-adorned crown. Gerasimos leads the congregation in prayer. He washes a bouquet of basil in holy water, sprinkles the crowd and tosses it into the water, part of the traditional Epiphany blessing of the waters. He lifts the cross and throws.

It sails across the water so quickly that those on the dock cannot see where it lands. The divers hit the water. Quickly, the front-runners emerge: Mantas in his wetsuit, Batshoun with her dark hair. They are head to head as they shoot toward the dock. It is over in a flash. The two swimmers appear close to colliding. Mantas’ arm shoots out. Water splashes. He lifts the cross triumphantly in the air. The crowd starts to cheer.

Within minutes, he is bending his head as Gerasimos suspends a gold cross around his neck. Later, at a feast of lamb back at the church hall, he will perform another traditional ritual: carrying the wooden cross in a basket from table to table, so that diners can kiss it and congratulate him. “I saw the shimmer off the gold, and it led me to it,” he says later. “It feels great.” Batshoun remains resolute. Next year, she vows, grinning, she will be back. “I just really enjoy doing it,” she says, “They say, no matter what, God blesses you for diving.”

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