Coach who led boys into Thai caves hailed hero after sacrificing meals and teaching meditation to keep team calm
Posted on July 10th, 2018

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As the man who placed his 12 young charges in mortal danger by taking them deep into a mountain cave system, the young coach of the Wild Boars football team could easily have been cast as the villain of one of the greatest rescue stories of recent times.

But on Tuesday, as it was confirmed that all 12 boys had finally been released from the Tham Luang cave system in northern Thailand, 25-year-old Ekapol Chanthawong was being hailed by relatives of the boys as the quiet hero of an adventure that so nearly ended in tragedy.

It is still unclear why the young coach decided to lead his boys some two-and-a-half miles into the forbidden cave system on the cusp of the rainy season, but when the group did become trapped he demonstrated leadership and maturity far beyond his years.

Using meditation techniques learned in a monastery where he grew up from the age of 10, Mr Chanthawong is credited with keeping the boys calm through the nine-day ordeal as they waited for rescuers to reach them.

When British divers finally arrived on the scene, videos showed the boys looking eerily calm, smiling weakly for the cameras – with Mr Chanthawong the weakest of them all after reportedly sharing out much of his own food rations to the boys.

The mother of one of the boys described the picture of calm stoicism as astonishing”, adding that the boys were just sitting there and waiting”, with “no-one crying or anything,” she told The Washington Post.

“He could meditate for up to an hour,” Umporn Sriwichai, the coach’s cousin, told the paper, saying that he had been sent to live at the Mae Sai monastery after all his close family died from illness.

“It has definitely helped him and probably helps the boys stay calm,” she added.

After losing much of his family, she said the young boy had been “sad and lonely” and had been sent to Mae Sai Monastery to train as a monk.

He left to care for elderly members of his family a few years ago, before becoming the Wild Boars’ assistant coach, she said.

Local media reports said that Mr Chanthawong had trained daily with the team, incorporating the strict schedules he had learned as a monk in order to improve the boys’ physical health.

Among the activities were regular cycle rides around Mae Sai, where the boys’ bikes and schoolbags were found chained up at the entrance to the cave 17 days ago.

The young coach was apparently able to communicate the techniques of deep breathing and intense concentration, learned over long hours in the monastery, to keep the boys from being overcome by their own fears and feelings of isolation in the cave.

The boys also attended a school where the pupils are 95 per cent Buddhist and where basic meditation is part of the curriculum.

Joy Khampai, who works at a coffee stand at the monastery was not surprised by his achievement, describing Mr Chanthawong to The Washington Post as a kind person who looked after himself and taught others to do the same.”

Nopparat Khanthavong, the team’s 37-year-old head coach, chose to praise, not chastise his young assistant, saying that he had taken “responsibility for them [the boys] as if they were his own family”.

One of the first thing the coach did after rescuers reached the groupwas to write a letter of apology to the boys’ parents for leading the excursion into the cave.

But the parents, however anxious and angry they were feeling, also heaped praise on their coach. “We just want you to know this is not your fault.

“We all here don’t blame you and we are here supporting you,” they replied.

The mother of one of the boys in the cave added: If he hadn’t gone with them, what would have happened to my child?”

Experts also said it was likely that Mr Chanthawong’s meditation experience could have helped keep the boys calm.

Michal Poulin, a psychology professor at the University of Buffalo, told The New York Times that meditation “could be helpful – even if it functioned solely as a way for the children to feel like their coach was doing something to help them.”

Omar Reygadas, a survivor of the 2010 Chile mining disaster, who spend 69 days trapped underground, also told the paper how faith and prayer had kept the trapped men going.

“They shouldn’t be ashamed to be scared,” he said of the boys, adding that the coach would have been a key figure in keeping the boys motivated.

“We were scared, too. Our tears also ran. Even as adult men, we cried.”

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