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.