At 25 years old, Ekkapol Chantawong, the assistant coach of the Moo Pa Thai soccer team who were found trapped in a cave after nine days, has endured more tragedy than most would experience in a lifetime.
Known to friends as ‘Ake’, Ekkapol grew up in a small village in North Thailand with his family. But in 2003, when he was only 10, a disease swept through the village, killing his mother, father, and seven-year-old brother.
For the next two years, Ekkapol was cared for by extended family, and was described by aunt Umporn Sriwichai to The Australian as “sad and lonely”.
When he was 12 years old, he made the decision along with relatives to study to become a monk, and spent a decade in a Buddhist temple learning to meditate, abstaining from alcohol and disseminating Buddhist teachings.
Ekkapol decided to leave the temple when he received news his grandmother needed support, and has lived with her ever since.
There are four boys and Ekkapol left inside the Tham Luang cave in Thailand. Post continues.
It was his love for soccer that drew him to the Moo Pa (Wild Boars) soccer team, made up of many players who come from poor families and belong to ethnic minorities, led by head coach Nopparat Khanthavong.
Ekkapol connected immediately with the team, working with the head coach to motivate the underprivileged boys academically. If they worked hard and achieved good results, they would be rewarded with new soccer boots or shorts. When parents couldn’t drop them at training, Ekkapol himself would pick them up and drive them home, treating the boys as if they were his own.
Along with Nopparat, Ekapol searched for sponsorship – wanting to provide the boys with every opportunity possible.
“He loved them more than himself,” Joy Khampai, a friend of Ekkapol’s said. “He was the kind of person who looked after himself [mentally and physically] and who taught the kids to do the same.” According to Nopparat, Ekkapol “gave a lot of himself to them.”
The 37-year-old coach had an appointment the morning of the boys’ soccer match, which would require them to travel to the Doi Nang Non mountain range on the Thai-Myanmar border. The area is known for its karstic formation, featuring remarkable waterfalls and caves.
Nopparat did not know where Ekkapol would take the 12 boys on the morning of June 23, but had full trust in the 25-year-old assistant who was highly respected by the team.
We are yet to hear the full of account of what led the group of 13 into the Tham Luang caves. When the story first broke, many were critical of Ekkapol’s decision to enter, given a warning at the entrance about flash flooding in the case of rain. Some sources say inscribing their names on the inside of the cave was a ritual, while others have speculated that perhaps it was the children who entered first. Whatever the reason, we know that monsoonal rains followed, and the boys and their coach were forced to find higher ground.
But it is what followed that has captured worldwide attention.
Rescuers say the coach, who is loved by the boys, ensured they huddled together for nine days in order to stay warm. More than two weeks on, Ekkapol is physically the weakest, because he has given almost all his food to the boys in his care.
It is understood that the 25-year-old has taught the boys to meditate in an effort to remain calm - a skill that has been critical in their evacuations with divers which involves a four hour escape route, most of it in pitch black conditions, with some points as narrow as 38cm.
The strategy of divers has been to rescue the weakest first, but Ekkapol, at the time of publication, remains inside the cave, waiting for all the boys to go first.
A close friend of the soccer team, 17-year-old Auttaporn Khamheng, told Fairfax, "I love Ake [Ekkapol], he's the one I trust, he's the one who takes care of all the kids.
"They survive, they are all heroes but the biggest hero is the coach. I'm sure he has done everything for all the kids in the cave.
"I'm worried he might blame himself, he's the one I worry about the most."
Another friend of Ekkapol from the monastery said, "I know he will blame himself."
A letter from inside the cave confirms the speculation by friends. The only words from Ekkapol so far are written on a piece of yellowing paper that reads: "I want to say thanks for all the support, and I want to apologise."
From what we've heard from the parents of the children trapped, no one blames the 25-year-old assistant coach, who has done everything in his power to keep those 12 boys safe.
The world now holds their breath, hoping we see, along with the four remaining boys, Ekkapol emerge from the cave, confronted with the news that he has nothing to be sorry for. He is a hero who unequivocally saved the lives of the boys in his care.