MAE SAI: A Thai youth football team and their coach led a charity race on Sunday near the Tham Luang cave which they entered exactly one year ago, emerging alive 18 nail-biting days later.
The dangerous and unprecedented rescue mission to save the 12 boys and their coach, who got stuck in floodwaters in the cave in northern Thailand on June 23, 2018, captivated the world.
The last of the “Wild Boars” – as their team was known – emerged alive nearly three weeks later after specialist divers carefully sedated them before extracting them through the narrow, flooded passageways.
On Sunday, 11 of the young footballers joined around 5,000 joggers and cyclists wearing sports jerseys or fancy dress – one runner braved the heat in a wetsuit, others wore inflatable animal costumes and colourful headgear – for a race near the cave that still remains closed today.
They ran past a statue of Thai Navy SEAL diver Saman Gunan, the only fatality during the nearly three-week rescue from the depths of the water-logged cave.
Thousands of rescuers, diving experts, soldiers, police and local volunteers descended on the site, often working around the clock under heavy rain.
One of the cave boys said the saga has changed his life.
“I’ve experienced so much … I learned a lot about the Thai people, especially our unity,” 17-year-old Pornchai Kamluang said Sunday at the race.
Three of the boys and their coach Ekkapol Chantawong were stateless at the time of the incident, having never received a birth certificate or passport.
They were all granted citizenship after the cave rescue and with the rest of the team have travelled the world to meet football stars, attend charity events, and even headlined the hugely popular Ellen Degeneres daytime talk show.
Some are hoping Sunday’s race will become an annual event.
“It’s important that we never forget what happened in June and July last year,” said British cave diver Vern Unsworth from Sunday’s race.
He worked with fellow divers Richard Stanton and John Volanthen, who found the emaciated boys trapped on a ledge deep inside the cave a full nine days after they went missing with little food or water in tow.
Today the boys are no longer gaunt – many still dream of becoming football stars and still train with ‘Coach Ek’ who now runs his own football academy.
“I’m thankful for all the officials who last year spent their time to help me and the boys get out safely,” said Ekkapol after running 6km with the boys.
Organisers said money raised at Sunday’s race will go toward the redevelopment of Tham Luang cave.
Authorities are hoping to reopen the cave as a learning centre for the droves of tourists – local and foreign – who now visit.