Soccer Coach's Training as Buddhist Monk Helps Get Thai Boys Through Cave Ordeal

(Facebook photo)

Eight boys have now been rescued from Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand after a youth soccer team intending to write their names on the wall of the tourist attraction was driven miles into the labyrinth by sudden monsoon rains that seasonally close and flood the caverns.

The operation led by British cave divers alongside Thai Navy SEALs will have to return to the cave tomorrow, racing time, dropping oxygen levels and the rains, to rescue the remaining four boys and their coach.

Miraculously, it looks like the Wild Boars team, with their current medical conditions unknown, may be able to make their invitation to the FIFA World Cup in Moscow on Sunday. The tragic death of one of their rescuers, former Thai Navy SEAL Saman Gunan, who was delivering oxygen canisters into the cave but fell unconscious on the way out, underscores the danger of the operation.

But how did the group of 11- to 16-year-old boys and their 25-year-old coach even get to this point? Their bicycles were found at the entrance of the cave after parents reported their sons missing June 23, the day that the team visited the cave after soccer practice — fortunately laden with snacks they’d bought en route. The Brits discovered all 13 alive on July 2. Food and medical supplies reached the boys the next day.

Keeping all the boys calm in a disciplined environment in a pitch-black cavern all that time was likely the result of the coach’s training: as a Buddhist monk.

Ekapol Chanthawong was the only member of his family to survive an epidemic that struck his village when he was 10 years old. Two years later, extended relatives sent the boy to live at a Buddhist temple, where Chanthawong trained to be a monk and learned meditation.

He left after a decade to care for his ailing grandmother and began coaching youth soccer at the Mae Sai Prasitsart school in Chiang Rai province, near the Burmese border. Many of the Wild Boars players came from impoverished families, and Chanthawong reportedly helped put in place a system whereby kids would get soccer gear from sponsors in return for good grades.

Chanthawong has reportedly taught meditation to the boys to keep them calm in the cave, and is suffering from malnutrition because he gave his food rations to the young players. He also instructed them to collect drinking water from the cave walls instead of from floodwaters.

In a letter sent out of the cave, Chanthawong wrote, “To the parents of all the kids, right now the kids are all fine, the crew are taking good care. I promise I will care for the kids as best as possible. I want to say thanks for all the support and I want to apologize to the parents.”

One of the boys’ letters lobbied for KFC after he got out, while another letter pleaded, “Teachers, please don’t give too much homework.”

In the mostly Buddhist country, rescuers are also receiving on-site spiritual support.