Since the age of 15, Mikes Legkos has been taking part as a swimmer in the Blessing of the Water ceremony during Theofania.

A devout Christian, diving for the cross during Theofania has been a positive spiritual event in his life, until this year, when he caught the cross. What should have been a joyous occasion has caused turbulence in his life following insulting messages on social media as well as an article in The Age where he was called an ‘interloper’.

“I cannot believe that Bishop Ezekiel condemned me in The Age and insinuated that those who dived from the pier were ‘animals’. Surely, these were just the journalist’s words,” Mr Legkos, 33, told Neos Kosmos, in despair, following articles about the ceremony at Port Melbourne. “Why am I being blamed for breaking the rules, being called a ‘cheater’, when I was just following the organisers’ instructions?”

Mr Legkos says that his reputation is now in tatters. A resident of Oakleigh, he says he feels awkward walking in public in his own neighbourhood, while online, he has been cyber bullied by people who weren’t even present and don’t know him. Worst still, he doesn’t understand why he is being blamed by the very organisers who told him to dive.

“When I arrived this year, they told us that only 25 people could dive from the boat due to safety concerns. We asked what that would mean for the rest of us who were there, and a man wearing a pink vest, an Australian official, told us that we could still take part and jump from the pier. There were about eight of us, and some felt outraged and left. Three of us stayed. Nobody told us to leave. On the contrary, they brought us a lifeguard who instructed us on how to jump from the pier. How was I supposed to know that this was ‘breaking the rules’ when I was just following directions? Why did the organisers bring us a lifeguard if our diving would later be frowned upon?”

Though an aficionado of Blessing of the Water dives, Mr Legkos says that he was not aware of any rules beyond what the organisers told him because “the rules keep changing” every year. “Last year, there were more than 25 jumping from the boat, another year we all dived from the pier, and one year, an Italian caught the cross,” Mr Legkos said.

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“How was I supposed to know that it wasn’t part of their plans to have us dive from the boat and the pier? Also, I didn’t think that they would actively turn down anyone wishing to dive for the cross. Whose rule is that? When has that ever happened before? I thought that the tradition is open to all, and not just to 25 or a set number of people.”

Mr Legkos, doing as instructed by the official and lifeguard on duty, dived to the cheers of those near him. “It was all legitimate. People were congratulating me for taking part,” he said, overjoyed when ‘with God’s blessing’ he was the first to catch the cross. But if God works in mysterious ways, that has been the case for Mr Legkos.

“I was shocked when lifeguards from a boat started yelling at me, telling me to throw the cross back,” he said. “I was confused but followed their orders, which is what I had done from the start of the day.

“When I returned to the pier, I was a little angry and asked what was going on, but my complaints were ignored. Nobody said anything. And they gave all of us, not just 25, medals for our participation.

“Bishop Ezekiel gave me his blessing. Nobody told me why my participation was rendered null. And people who had seen me being instructed to dive asked why I hadn’t kept the cross. But I didn’t want to make a fuss or hold those for the bad organisation of the ceremony accountable. After all, it’s not a beauty contest, or a swimming competition. I don’t dive for a prize, but because it is an honour in itself. It doesn’t matter who gets the cross.”

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It’s only when he got home that Mr Legkos faced a barrage of nastiness on social media. “Why did the Bishop not say to my face what he said to the newspaper?” he asked, stunned by the article that states that Bishop Ezekiel was upset and considered the three swimmers to be “disrespectful and uncivilised”.

A humble man from Kos, Mr Legkos does not understand of the ways of social media where people pour their venom without actually being present at an event. And though he is a devout Christian, he could not understand why Bishop Ezekiel would lash out at him in the media when he had the opportunity to express his feelings directly in a more subtle way.

Neos Kosmos reached out to Bishop Ezekiel who stands by his original comments. “I was angry to see people jump from the pier, and this was not part of the organisation,” Bishop Ezekiel said. “Each year we ask people to let us borrow a boat, and this year the boat came from Geelong and could only fit 25 people. I don’t think anyone directed the men to jump from the pier, and even if they had been instructed by an official then their common logic should have prevailed because they only swam ten metres whereas the people from the boat swam 500 metres. It doesn’t matter what they were told, they should have known.

“People from the pier booed when they saw what happened, but I forgave the diver who caught the cross first because he threw it back, obviously understanding his ‘mistake’.”

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When told of what Mr Legkos has been subjected to because of his comments to The Age, the religious leader said that he is sorry for any upset but he continues to stand by his words.

On a more positive note, Bishop Ezekiel is happy that people want to participate in the ceremony and encourages them to register in advance in order to avoid disappointment.

On his part, Mr Legkos says that following this year’s fiasco, he will never dive again. He is disappointed by the nature of some online users, and hurt by the comments of a local church leader whom he has always respected. “Just tell my story and let people decide if I am a cheater,” he said.