TARPON SPRINGS — Although he figured it ultimately was up to God to decide which of the 43 teenage boys would find the wooden cross thrown into Spring Bayou, diver Peter Tommy Smith felt it wouldn’t hurt to jump in with a little strategy.
When the divers leaped into the 62-degree water Monday morning to board one of 10 small dinghies, Smith followed the wind that was whipping the water toward the “St. Michaels Shrine.” Though the vessel capsized almost immediately, Smith knew to stay put, treading water as Archbishop Demetrios prayed and blessed the waters during St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral’s 108th annual Epiphany festival,
As the other boys scrambled on the surface, the 18-year-old from Ellenton followed the cross straight to the bayou floor, emerging 13.5 seconds later with the blessing in his hands and tears in his blue eyes.
“It still feels like a dream, I’m just trying not to wake up,” said Smith, a senior at St. Stephens Episcopal High School in Bradenton. “I just started swimming across the bottom, and though I was running out of breath, I could see the glowing white. I just kept telling myself to keep going.”
Despite the cold and the wind, the divers hoisted Smith on their shoulders, parading him through the streets as he held the cross toward the gray sky.
The Epiphany festival in Tarpon Springs, the annual commemoration of the baptism of Jesus Christ, is the largest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere, drawing 20,000 to 25,000 visitors from across the world, said Tarpon Springs Police Administrative Captain Jeffrey Young. The 22-mph winds and the 60-degree temperatures on Monday made for a smaller crowd than usual.
Mary Jadin of Appleton, Wis., said she and her husband, Tom, have been to Tarpon Springs previously, but not to Epiphany.
“When I read about the festival in the paper, I knew we had to go,” she said. “The ceremony is beautiful and the food is always great.“
Unlike Floridians, she was not bothered by the cold.
“The weather is always a concern, but when it comes time for the dive the skies always seem to clear and there’s a sparkle in the air,” said Johanna Kossifidis, co-chairman for the city’s annual Epiphany festival.
“We’ve had years where it was freezing, where there was pouring rain right before or after, but no matter what the weather, our boys are prepared and honored to do this.”
Smith, an altar boy at St. Barbara Green Orthodox Church in Sarasota, and his family are no strangers to the community or the tradition.
His mother’s brother, Basil Assimack, found the cross during a dive in the 1970s, and his grandmother, Nena Assimack, still lives in Tarpon Springs. Though most winners have come from Tarpon Springs, the event is open to all nine local Greek Orthodox parishes. Past winners have come from Clearwater and New Port Richey, Kossifidis said, Last year’s winner, Vassilios Harding, attended Tarpon Springs High School like many others before him.
So many students participate in the event that Tarpon Springs Principal Clint Herbic counted the festival as a religious holiday, giving more than half the school the day off to join him at Spring Bayou for the dive.
“From the four Epiphany’s I’ve been to, all of the winners but the first year were my students,” Herbic said. “There’s always a lot of celebrating in the halls and the classrooms, and regardless of who the winner is it’s always an exciting time ... All of the students practice for this for months, taking classes at the church and diving, and it’s something that’s very real and very meaningful to this whole community, regardless of religion.”
Within minutes of being carried to St. Nicholas by other divers, Smith was signing autographs and taking pictures as visitors shoved drawings and pictures of past winners into his hands. Church members prayed over him and showered him with advice like, “Be on your best behavior, everyone’s watching you now.”
“I really didn’t think he would get it, it was kind of weird but really cool,” said Peter’s 14-year-old brother, Robert Smith, who plans to dive for the cross in two years. “We were watching through our camera lens and when we realized it was him it was indescribable. I think he really is blessed.”
Peter’s father, Bob Smith, was home sick with the flu, but jumped in the car to meet his son at the Epiphany Glendi, party with Greek food and dancing. His mother, Anna Smith, stayed busy looking for towels and sweaters, and borrowed shawls, to wrap around her shivering son as he posed for pictures and got high fives from fellow divers.
“We don’t believe in luck,” said 16-year-old Tyler Shanahan, a first-year diver who attends St. Barbara in Sarasota with Smith. “God made Peter get it because he has a plan for him.” Shanahan kissed the cross and patted Peter on the back as he made his way through the crowd.
This was Peter’s second dive for the cross. Though winds muddled the waters, the avid fisherman said he was able to keep his eyes open and his mind clear during the entire dive. Peter plans to attend Florida Gulf Coast University after graduation and major in entrepreneurship with a minor in marketing or finance.
“I’ll need all the blessings I can get during my first year of college, so I’m hoping this will help me out,” Peter said.