Ilias Skandaliaris, a 17-year-old Tarpon Springs High School student who was born in Kalymnos, Greece, came up with the cross after diving into Spring Bayou with 54 other boys during the 2019 Epiphany celebration on Jan. 6.

TARPON SPRINGS — Crystal clear skies, mild temperatures and a gentle breeze provided the perfect backdrop for Tarpon Springs’ 2019 Epiphany celebration, as thousands of people, including local and state politicians, Greek Orthodox Church clergy — even an ex-astronaut — packed the downtown district for the event, reportedly the largest of its kind outside of Greece.

The weather served as a stark contrast to last year’s Epiphany, held annually on January 6, as the dozens of teenaged boys who dove for the cross in Spring Bayou in 2018 were forced to deal with frigid temps and chilly waters.

But there were no such issues with the 113th edition of the city’s Epiphany celebration, and this year, it didn’t take long for one of the 55 divers to come up with the cross; roughly 30 seconds after Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, tossed the cherished symbol into the water, 17-year-old Ilias Skandaliaris came to the surface clutching the cross, where he was immediately mobbed by his fellow divers.

“I saw bubbles and I dove straight down,” Skandaliaris, a Tarpon Springs High School student who was, like Tarpon Springs Mayor Chris Alahouzos, born in sister city, Kalymnos, said afterwards. “It was amazing. Words can’t describe it. I’m just so happy right now.”

Happiness was the overriding theme of the day, which began with the mass inside the ornate St. Nicholas Cathedral at 8 a.m. and concluded with the massive feast, known as the Epiphany Glendi, at Craig Park later that afternoon.

As he soaked up the attention and adoration that comes with being the incumbent cross retriever, Chris-tosomos “Christian” Chrysakis noted how the experience changed his life.

“Every day it comes to me how it happened to me, and it makes me feel so blessed,” Chrysakis said as he met with friends and relatives and posed for pictures outside the church. “This was probably the fastest year of my life, but a good year all around. It made me think about everything ten times more. There is a lot of people filled with hate in this world, but this showed me there is good in the world, too. It was definitely the best thing that ever happened in my life so far.”

When asked what advice he would give to Skandaliaris, a distant cousin, Chrysakis replied, “Never give up, and always believe in yourself.”

Prior to the cross dive, which was witnessed by Alahouzos, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, and former NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, among others, groups of spectators gathered outside St. Nicholas, listening to the Divine Liturgy playing on speakers pointed towards the courtyard.

Standing out among the crowd was a man wearing a white straw cowboy hat with KENTUCKY on the band and mouse ears on top. Louisville native Joe Webb said he’s been coming to the Tarpon Springs Epiphany celebration long enough to know where to park and how to get in and out like a seasoned pro.

“I’ve got it down to a science,” Webb explained. “I get here early and park near the bayou, then as soon as they throw the cross, I get into my car and head to a nearby Greek delicatessen and eat.”

When asked what brought the wintertime Bradenton resident up to Pinellas County for the celebration, Webb said: “It’s an awesome spectacle, and it’s something you have to see in person to understand and truly enjoy. It’s not something that translates well on TV. I just love it.”