How hero coach's time as a monk saved cave boys
Relatives praise him for his leadership and maturity - and techniques learnt from years at a monastery
As the man who placed his 12 young charges in mortal danger by taking them deep into a mountain cave system, the young coach of the Wild Boars football team could easily be cast as the villain in one of the greatest rescue stories of recent times.
But, as it was confirmed that all 12 boys had finally been released from the Tham Luang cave system in northern Thailand, 25-year-old Ekapol Chanthawong was being hailed by relatives of the boys as the quiet hero of an adventure that so nearly ended in tragedy.
It is still unclear why the young coach decided to lead his boys into the forbidden cave system on the cusp of the rainy season, but when the group did become trapped he demonstrated leadership and maturity far beyond his years.
Using meditation techniques learnt in a monastery where he grew up from the age of 10, Chanthawong is credited with keeping the boys calm through the nine-day ordeal as they waited for rescuers to reach them.
When British divers finally arrived on the scene, videos showed the boys looking eerily calm, smiling weakly for the cameras, with Chanthawong the weakest of them all after reportedly sharing out much of his own food rations to the boys.
The mother of one of the boys described the picture of calm stoicism as “astonishing”, adding that the boys were just “sitting there and waiting”, with “no one crying or anything”, she told The Washington Post.
Trained every day
After losing much of his family, she said the young Ekapol had been “sad and lonely” and had been sent to Mae Sai Monastery to train as a monk. He left to care for elderly members of his family a few years ago, before becoming the Wild Boars’ assistant coach, she said.
Local media reports said that Chanthawong had trained daily with the team, incorporating the strict schedules he had learnt as a monk to improve the boys’ physical health. Among the activities were regular cycle rides around Mae Sai, where the boys’ bikes and schoolbags were found chained up at the entrance to the cave 17 days ago.
The young coach was apparently able to communicate the techniques of deep breathing and intense concentration, learnt over long hours in the monastery, to keep the boys from being overcome by their own fears and feelings of isolation.
The boys also attended a school where the pupils are 95% Buddhist and where basic meditation is part of the curriculum.
Nopparat Khanthavong, the team’s 37-year-old head coach, chose to praise, not chastise, his young assistant, saying he had taken “responsibility for them [the boys] as if they were his own family”.
One of the first things the coach did after rescuers reached the group was to write a letter of apology to the boys’ parents for leading the excursion into the cave. But the parents replied: “We just want you to know this is not your fault. We all here don’t blame you and we are here supporting you.”
The mother of one of the boys in the cave added: “If he hadn’t gone with them, what would have happened to my child?”