Living as an ordained Buddhist monk for 10 years, coach Ekkapol Chantawong – or Coach Ek, as he has come to be known – almost certainly helped keep the 12 Thai boys trapped inside the cave alive.
According to Buddhist leader Prayuth Jetiyanukarn, Coach Ek would have taught the boys fundamental meditation techniques to use when they were scared, hungry and cold, the ABC has reported.
Abbot Prayuth is head of the Pratha Doi Wao templeof the Prathat Doi Wao temple on the Thai-Myanmar border where Ek prays.
For the almost nine days they were trapped inside a cave in northern Thailand without any signs of rescue, the boys aged 11 to 16 had only their coach to turn to for adult reassurance.
Abbot Prayuth believes Coach Ek would have taught the boys techniques to stay calm, how to meditate for long periods and the skills of mindfulness to ward off hunger and boredom.
The coach would also have offered them hope and encouragement that they would be rescued, said the abbot.
Reportedly keen on trekking and outdoor life, Ek’s survival skills were called on during what has been hailed as a world-first successful rescue of its type.
Sedated and transported out on stretchers in three separate 4.7-kilometre journeys, the boys and coach were reunited with their families in a perilous, uniquely-crafted rescue which began on July 8.
“How did he do it? It was such a long period of time – nine days. What did he say?” Abbot Prayuth asked in an interview with the ABC.
“The children would have been crying, crying for their parents and homes.
“Even crying can physically exhaust you and make you dehydrated.
“They might be healthy and strong but they’re only children. They’re only young, they lack experience.
“We probably would not have found them alive without Ek [Ekkapol].”
“They did nothing wrong. I never thought they did anything wrong. I think these kids will be a force for good in our society,” Abbot Prayuth told the ABC.
Coach Ek, 25, along with the boys, remain in a Chiang Rai hospital in quarantine. He has not spoken publicly about the ordeal or how they all came to be trapped so far underground.
One of his relatives, Charoenpol Rattanaweerachon, 52, has told Reuters that Ek is a “kind and humble man” who was ordained as a novice Buddhist monk at the age of 10, after his father died.
He stayed at a temple in Chiang Mai province until he was 20, when he left the monkhood to take care of his grandmother.
Mr Charoenpol said Ek, confirmed as stateless, did odd jobs and lived a simple life, often sleeping at a monastery high on a hill or with friends in the town of Mae Sai on the Myanmar border, not far from the cave complex.
“I think he helped the children a lot, being a novice monk for 10 years,” he said.
Coach Ek is a member of the Tai Lue minority, one of several groups whose people have over generations moved around the region, across open borders in remote hills between southern China, Myanmar and Laos, and into northern Thailand’s ethnic patchwork of communities.
Weenat Seesuk, an interior ministry official in Bangkok, said Ek and three of the rescued boys were stateless.
“They are not Thai citizens,” Mr Weenat told Reuters, adding that officials were checking to see if they qualified for citizenship.
Mr Charoenpol said Ek would be welcomed back into the community when he left hospital.
“He must be feeling guilty right now but I would say he has nothing fear. His goodness will shine through,” he said.