When the 12 young boys and their soccer coach walked into a cave complex in northern Thailand a year ago Sunday, they didn’t know their lives were going to forever change.
Rising floodwater quickly trapped the youngsters inside the Tham Luang cave complex, setting off a more than two-week ordeal that the world watched with rapt attention and that left the members of the Wild Boars soccer club with a survival tale that propelled them into celebrities.
Nine of the boys and their coach were on hand Sunday in the northern town of Mae Sai to mark the anniversary along with some 4,000 others by taking part in a marathon and bike event to raise money to improve conditions at the cave.
“I want to thank everybody who has put so much effort and sacrifices to save all of us,” said Ekapol Chantawong, the former coach of the Wild Boars who led the boys on the ill-fated visit to the cave.
Ekapol stood in front of a bronze statue of Lieutenant Commander Saman Gunan that has been erected to honour the former Thai navy SEAL who died while working on the search and rescue.
The boys spent nine nights lost in the cave, living on very little food and water, before they were found spotted deep in the twisting cave complex huddled on a patch of dirt above the rising water line. It was a moment captured on video and soon broadcast to the world.
It would be another eight days — until July 10 — before they were all safe.
Also on hand Sunday were a number of the local and foreign divers who took part in the search and rescue operation, which due to its danger and difficulty has been hailed by many as a miracle.
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 played a key part in the search for the boys and their eventual rescue.
“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.
A year later the boys are notably older and taller. Wearing orange T-shirts from the event, they smiled and posed for photos. They have grown familiar with the attention they receive, though are not altogether comfortable with it.
Three of the players as well as Ekapol were stateless and were granted Thai citizenship last August.
The team travelled last year to Argentina and the U.S. The boys and their coach are represented by the 13 Tham Luang Co. Ltd., which Thailand’s government helped establish to manage business opportunities stemming from the ordeal. Netflix has acquired the rights to their story.
The Associated Press