Teen diver snags Epiphany cross > Retriever Of The Cross

His fellow cross divers carried Michael Nikitas Xipolitas, this year’s retriever, on their shoulders to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral

TARPON SPRINGS > An ailing mother’s dream came true Saturday when Michael Nikitas Xipolitas came out of the paddling madness in Spring Bayou with the prized Epiphany cross held high.

Helen Xipolitas, her leukemia in remission, said a dream she had in the hospital about a year ago inspired her to get better. “When I was sick,” she said, “I had a dream that told me, ‘Get up and go see your son catch the cross.’ A dream was confirmed and came true today. “My God, I could feel it before he came up out of the water that he had it. And when I saw his hand come up, holding the cross, I knew it was my son’s fist. A mother knows.”

Michael Xipolitas, like his mother, was overcome after winning the race for the white wooden cross against 51 other Greek Orthodox teenage divers. He crouched at the foot of the platform steps awaiting the blessing of Archbishop Demetrios and broke out in tears, shaking his head.

“This means everything to me,” Michael Xipolitas said later. “This is the best day of my life, a memory I will never forget. “I could not move when I got out of the water; I had no energy. I was in shock.”

The cross diving was the focal point in a long day of Greek Orthodox celebration of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. An estimated 15,000 turned out for the 101st Epiphany Day Celebration, which featured church services and a procession to the bayou before the cross toss.

There was an Epiphany Glendi festival afterward at Craig Park, highlighted by food, music and dancing, and an Epiphany Ball at the Spanos-Pappas Community Center Theofilos Hall.

Xipolitas, who turned 18 on Thursday, ran and jumped feet first into the bayou with the others on command. He quickly swam to one of two rowboats best positioned for the quickest path to where the cross would be thrown, and took off after doves were released and Archbishop Demetrios heaved the cross. “All I could see above water was the tip of the top of the cross,” he said. “I grabbed it with my right hand and got out of the water.”

His fellow divers slapped his back and planted kisses on his cheek and neck before carrying him on their shoulders less than a mile to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. There was no holding back of emotion. His mother began screaming for joy when she realized her son had the cross, and she had to be held by both arms and escorted up brick West Tarpon Avenue to the cathedral. She called her father, John Pontikos of Tarpon Springs, on a cell phone and shouted, “Dad! Michael got the cross!” She was unable to reach her husband, Nikitas, by phone. Helen Xipolitas, 49, is on medication and still undergoing chemotherapy. “I always have faith in God, and that is why I am here,” she said. “And that is why my dream has come true for my son.”

John Rinios of Tarpon Springs, who called himself Michael Xipolitas’ best friend, said, “There is nothing he wanted more than that cross. It’s all he’s talked about for a couple months. He even quit smoking cigarettes for this day.”

Michael’s 16-year-old brother, Yianni Xipolitas, also dived and said he came within five feet of the cross, adding that his brother had come close to getting it in 2006. “Next year is my turn,” Yianni Xipolitas said.

Kalliope Cortessis, 16, was selected to be the dove bearer and released the bird, a homing pigeon that returned to its trainer in New Port Richey afterward, at Spring Bayou after singing in the choir at the cathedral. “I’d always watch at the Epiphany when they let the dove go and got goose bumps,” said Cortessis, whose mother, Renee Katsaras, was the dove bearer in 1984. “I feel really special about joining my mom.”

Chris and Elbus Kellamis of North Canton, Ohio, along with their cousin, Bea Wagner, made the trip to Tarpon Springs from Venice, where they are spending a month. “As a kid, I saw a movie where they dove for the cross here, and I always wanted to see it,” said Chris Kellamis, 71. “I’m really impressed with the reverence of the occasion.”

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