The 12 young soccer players and their coach who became global celebrities after their miraculous rescue from a flooded cave in northern Thailand have marked the 12-month anniversary of the drama.
Some of the boys and their former coach joined about 4000 people for a marathon and cycle race in the Thai town of Mae Sai on Sunday morning.
The race had been organised by local authorities to raise money to improve conditions at the now famous Tham Luang cave complex in northern Thailand.
The youngsters from the Wild Boar soccer team went in to explore the caves before rain-fed floodwaters pushed them deep inside the dark complex. Their rescue – which gripped the world and drew on the expertise of hundreds of people, including Australian divers Richard Harris and Craig Challen – was hailed as nothing short of a miracle.
Nine of the boys and their coach ran in Sunday’s marathon, donning the event’s orange T-shirts and looking notably taller and older. The Wild Boars were the centre of attention as they smiled and posed for photos.
The boys and their coach have since become celebrities, represented by the 13 Tham Luang Co. Ltd, which Thailand’s government helped establish to look after their interests. Netflix has acquired the rights to their story.
“I want to thank everybody who has put so much effort and sacrifices to save all of us,” said Ekapol Chantawong, the former Wild Boars coach who was trapped with the boys. He stood in front of the bronze statue of Lieutenant Commander Saman Gunan, a Thai navy SEAL who died in the rescue effort.
Abbot Prayutjetiyanukarn, a monk in the local neighbourhood who interacts with the team every week, said some of the boys were wary of the media and tried to avoid the press whenever they can.
“But they are fine, both physically and spiritually,” he said. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
Last year’s sensational rescue was initially led only by Thailand’s navy SEALs. When the sheer difficulties of the effort became obvious, they turned to international rescuers and cave explorers, and crucially, cave diving experts, including Dr Harris and Dr Challen.
Drivers from the British Cave Rescue Council located the boys and their coach. But it was days more before they were all out of the flooded cave network on July 10, 2018 – a massively complicated rescue that took three days and involved hundreds of people.
The operation required placing oxygen canisters along the path where the divers manoeuvred dark, tight and twisting passageways filled with muddy waters and strong currents.
“Not many children could have survived the way they did, so we have to respect them for that,” said Vernon Unsworth, a British diver whose advice and experience were crucial to the rescue operation.
“What we should do right now is to just let them get on with their lives. Just let them grow up like normal kids,” he said.
Many local and foreign rescuers returned for Sunday’s run.
These days, the caves and Mae Sai, in the mountainous province on Thailand’s border with Myanmar, are packed with curious tourists.
The area surrounding the caves, which amenities, which just last year mostly featured dirt roads and thick mud, has also been extensively updated. There are now paved roads and shops.