July 22, 2019
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One year later, Thai boys rescued from cave grapple with fame

By Gaspar Ruiz-Canela

Bangkok, Jun 22 (efe-epa).- A year after they found themselves trapped for more than two weeks inside a cave in northern Thailand, 12 boys from a youth soccer team and their coach are still grappling with their new-found fame gained after their harrowing rescue operation captured the world's attention and changed their lives forever in many ways, from international tours to a Netflix movie deal.

The kids are now back in school and the coach opened his own soccer academy in a bid to return to normalcy, though they all find it hard to avoid the spotlight as they are constantly recognized and their social media accounts boast tens of thousands of followers.

The minors – members of the team known as the Wild Boars aged between 11-16 – had entered a grotto in the northern province of Chiang Rai with their coach on June 23 of last year when monsoon rains flooded the cave, leaving them trapped inside.

As days passed following their disappearance, the public started to fear for their lives, but they were all eventually rescued by an international team of divers in an operation that was broadcast by media around the globe, leading the Wild Boars to become national heroes.

Due to their new contractual obligations, the boys and the coach are prevented from talking to the press, while a company formed by their parents – 13 Tham Luang (based on the cave's name) – now looks after their image rights.

"Now the kids are fine, they go to school normally," Lt Gen. Weerachon Sukhontapatipak, the spokesperson for the Thai prime minister's office and head of the government committee created to uphold the children's interests, told EFE.

"The children are well and happy," he added. "After being trapped in the cave, they say they have gained a lot of experience. It was a big deal."

Weerachon said that the show of support and kindness from the nation would lead the children to "always be good."

According to the spokesman, the production company SK Global was still immersed in the pre-production phase of a movie project that will be distributed via the streaming platform Netflix.

The film is set to be co-directed by American director Jon M. Chu ("Crazy Rich Asians") and Thai filmmaker Nattawut Poonpiriya ("Bad Genius").

The team's coach, Eakapol Chanthawong, launched his own soccer academy in the small village of Mae Sai where he resides, located near the Tham Luang cave. He has more than 183,000 followers on his Facebook page.

One of the kids, Phonchai Khamluang – who recently turned 17 – has over 12,000 Facebook followers and some of the pictures he has posted – such as one with the rest of the Wild Boars at Manchester United's Old Trafford stadium in the United Kingdom – have garnered more than 3,000 "likes."

At least two books about the rescue have been published so far.

The ordeal deeply moved the Southeast Asian country: while the boys remained trapped, solidarity poured in from all corners, including several gurus and monks who attempted to locate them telepathically.

The group was finally found by two British divers on July 2. They had survived in the darkness without food, just by drinking the water that filtered through the cave's walls.

They remained calm through practiced meditation, which also helped save energy – an important factor that helped them to survive amid the cave's cold and humid conditions.

Between July 8-10, the kids and the coach – who did not know how to swim – were sedated and brought out of the cave by specialized diving teams wading through a dangerous 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) underwater route.

The divers needed around three hours on average to extricate each boy.

Two months later, the coach and three of the kids – all of whom were stateless, as they belonged to ethnic minorities – were given Thai citizenship.

Following their odyssey, the group was invited to the UK to attend a Manchester United match in October. They also went to the Summer Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires and were interviewed by popular television host Ellen DeGeneres in the United States.

On Sunday, a race is set to be held to commemorate the day the Wild Boars got lost in the cave, which now hosts a museum dedicated to the rescue that contains a bronze statue of the Thai diver who died during the operation, Saman Kunan.

On Monday, the boys and their coach will take part in a Buddhist ritual near the cave's entrance to give thanks for their miraculous rescue.

grc/dl

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