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  • Amid the ongoing FIFA World Cup, another equally riveting and dramatic soccer-related event captured the world — the search and rescue mission of 12 young Thai boys and their soccer coach, who were trapped in a flooded cave complex in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand for a total of 18 days.

    The group, consisting of boys ages 11 to 16 and their coach, aged 25, had gone missing Saturday, June 23, 2018, and were found alive by British drivers 10 days later, July 2. Eight days after, July 10, they were all successfully rescued through the teamwork of dozens of divers and hundreds of volunteers.

    While the rescue operation yielded inspiring moments that restored our faith in humanity, it is the young soccer team's exemplary acts of bravery, resilience, and mental toughness that left us in awe.

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    The boys and their coach had to fit themselves on a small ledge in the cave. They were covered in darkness for nine days, surviving on the meager food they had brought along for their supposedly short trip. And yet, in the video footage provided by the British divers who first discovered them, the kids were calm and even good manners intact, thank the divers for finding them. In the succeeding days, they appeared to be in good spirits and smiling as they interacted with the Thai Navy SEAL divers who provided them with supplies and checked on their conditions.


    The courage the boys showed was likely nurtured in part by their coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, who taught them to meditate and conserve their energy, according to a report by the Washington Post. The 25-year-old had trained to be a monk but left the monastery to take care of his grandmother. It was soon after that he became an assistant coach to the Moo Pa (translated in English as “wild boars”) team.

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    Meditation was crucial to keeping the team alive, says IncThe oxygen supply in the area where they were trapped was decreasing, down to 15 percent (the minimum for sustaining life) compared to the normal level of 21 percent. Without meditation, which slows respiration and reduces oxygen intake, oxygen levels would have continued to decrease and endangering the boys.

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    Ekapol, who became an orphan at age 10, found kindred spirits in the boys, many of whom had grown up poor. He would take the boys home when their parents were not available and took responsibility for them like they were his own kids.

    He even worked with the team’s head coach, Nopparat Khanthavong, and came up with a system that motivated the boys to excel while pursuing their passion for soccer academically. If they achieved certain grades in school, they would be rewarded with soccer gear. Both coaches worked hard to look for sponsors for the Wild Boars team “to prove to the boys that they could become something more than their small town would suggest — even professional athletes,” says the Washington Post.

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    “He loved them more than himself,” said Joy Khampai, Ekapol’s longtime friend, in an interview with the Washington Post. “He was the kind of person who looked after himself and who taught the kids to do the same.”

    According to rescue officials, Ekapol was among the weakest in the group, “in part because he gave the boys his share of the limited food and water they had with them in the early days.”

    Of course, people have criticized the coach for allowing the team to explore the cave complex known as Tham Luang Nang Non in the first place. Though it is a known tourist attraction, there was a large warning sign at the cave’s entrance that says entering it so close to the monsoon season poses a risk.


    In a handwritten letter carried by divers, Ekapol apologized to the parents and promised to care for the boys as best as he could while they remained trapped inside the cave. “Thank you for all the support,” he wrote. “I deeply apologize to the parents.”

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    The parents wrote back, telling him that they do not blame him for what happened. The knowledge that he was with their sons gave them strength.

    “If he didn’t go with them, what would have happened to my child?” said the mother of Pornchai Khamluang, one of the boys in the cave, in an interview with a Thai television network. “When he comes out, we have to heal his heart. My dear Ek, I would never blame you.”

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