Oh, it hasn’t always gone smoothly at the annual Epiphany celebration.
There was the year the dove bearer hoisted the white bird symbolizing the Holy Spirit into the cloudless sky -- and it dropped dead into the water. And the time dozens of stampeding boys knocked over the Greek Orthodox archbishop in their haste to jump into the Spring Bayou.
And who can forget when a local shock jock played the ultimate trick, having his minions throw several faux pas crosses in the water during the pre-dawn hours to thwart the teens’ efforts?
Now Epiphany 2012 will forever have its place in the history books as the Year of the Double Cross-Triple Winner Controversy.
"This was an unusual situation," conceded Helen Giakoumis, the event’s co-chairperson.
After much confusion and plenty of pandemonium (ironically, a derivative of a Greek word), organizers delared not one, not two, but three teens as victors of the popular cross toss.
Sharing this year’s honors are Louis Mailisand, 17; his cousin, Miros Petru, also 17; and Jared Alissandratos, 16. All three attend Tarpon Springs High School and live in the community.
It’s usually a slam-dunk decision as who retrieves the cross at the day-long Greek Orthodox festival of faith and culture held here every Jan. 6 in observance of Epiphany, which commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan. After Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, gave his blessing and tossed the cross into the chilly waters of the Spring Bayou, all watched to see which boy would emerge with the coveted cross.
Tradition holds the retriever gets a special blessing from God for a year.
The 61 Greek male teens, spread among 10 anchored rowboats tied in a semi-circle, dived into the bayou amid cheers of encouragement from an estimated crowd of 20,000. One by one, their heads popped up, their mouths gasping for air. No one could find the cross in the murky depths.
After six and a half minutes, the archbishop directed the boys back to the boats. Then he changed his mind, telling them to stay in the water. He tossed a second cross.
That produced another mad rush. After much bobbling, jostling and thrashing about, Mailisand thrust out his hand, griping the prized possession. He climbed out of the waters, then was hoisted on the shoulders of his fellow divers and carried to the cathedral.
"I’m so shaken and so nervous," said his mother, Linda, as she followed the procession. "Because he told me that he was going to get it. And I said, ‘Yeah, you and the other 60 boys." And he did get it!"
She said the special blessing from the cross is just the boost she, her son and her daughter needed. Three years ago, her husband, Manuel, died at age 53 from pancreatic cancer.
"Louis knows his father was right there with him today," she said. "Manuel was a Greek man from Tarpon, Greek through and through. He has to be so proud now."
But the victory party wasn’t over yet.
Back at the sanctuary, while Mailisand was getting blessed by the archbishop, a smaller group of boys came in the front doors. Atop their shoulders was Miros Petru, kissing a white cross in his hand.
"That’s my cousin!" Mailisand said in disbelief.
"I found it!" an exuberant Petru shouted out. "It’s a blessing for me and my cousin! This is a dream come true."
Petru said he stayed in the water, determined to find the elusive first cross. On his fourth dive down, he felt an object with a distinct "slickness of the paint." He grabbed it and emerged, though most people had turned their attention to his cousin’s celebration.
Both boys stood side by side on the altar, holding their crosses high above their heads. Family members took photos and clergy murmured prayers.
But it wasn’t over yet.
Soon the boys began buzzing about a third diver who had the second cross in his hand before losing it in the watery chaos. The archbishop’s official photographer began reviewing his photos. And sure enough, there was Jarad Alissandratos, clearly touching the cross when it first hit the water.
Hours later, organizers declared that this year, there would be three winners. According to the cathedral’s Web site, it happened once before in 1947. Double winners were named in 1974, 1976 and 1979.
Though the trio of victors will get the attention for the coming year, one mother will proudly remember this Epiphany event, now in its 106th year, for another reason.
Nina Pazos got to the bayou early with her husband, John. They came to watch their 18-year-old son, Alex, make his final dive. Next month, he goes into the U.S. Coast Guard, with plans of joining its rescue dive team.
When the teens jumped into the water, one began to panic, shouting out that he couldn’t breathe and was drowning. So Alex Pazos abandoned his quest to retrieve the cross and hooked his arm around the young man, dragging him to the edge of the dock. Medical personnel got him out of the water and gave him oxygen.
"He doesn’t matter he didn’t get the cross," his mother said. "What he did was a blessing. He’s a true hero to me."