Brother Ekk: Thai coach who put players first right to the end

The Guardian, by Jacob Goldberg


Those who know Ekaphol Chantawong, unsurprised former monk last to be rescued

For two days after rescue workers began the delicate process of guiding the young members of the Wild Boars football team out of Tham Luang Nang Non cave complex, their coach Ekaphol Chantawong remained behind in the damp, dark chamber where he and 12 boys had been trapped for more than two weeks.

Whether this was the coach’s decision or that of the rescue divers remains unknown, but those who know him say they have no doubt that the man they know as Pi Ekk (Brother Ekk) would have made sure his players had made it to safety first.

“After playing, he always let all of us drink water first, and he’d drink last,” said Songpol Kanthawong, 13, who practised with the Wild Boars on 23 June, the day his coach and 12 of his team-mates became trapped. Songpol missed out on the cave visit because he did not have his bike with him to cycle to Tham Luang with the others.

“Coach Ekk always thinks of others before himself,” he said.

While the 25-year-old was still in the cave, Mae Sai’s police chief declined to answer media questions as to whether Chantawong would face negligence charges for bringing the boys into the cave, saying only that he would “study the matter”.

In a letter written inside the cave and delivered to the parents of the Wild Boars last week, Chantawong, who has coached the team for more than three years, apologised and promised to take care of their children.

The parents wrote back: “Don’t blame yourself … No parents are angry with you at all, so don’t you worry about that.”

Thai media have also praised the coach’s character, reporting that he was once ordained as a Buddhist monk and that since leaving monasticism has spent much of his time caring for his grandmother.

During the prolonged rescue operation, the government’s spokesman said the coach’s presence in the cave had been a source of comfort to the boys under his watch.

“The coach is advising them that they need to lie down, of course [try] meditation, try not to move their bodies too much, try not to waste their energy. And of course, by meditation, they stay conscious all the time, so their mind will not be wandering around.,” said Lt Gen Werachon Sukondhapatipak.

Chatthahan Saklakul, a winger for the Wild Boars who was not trapped in the cave, said he recognised the behaviour the spokesman described.

“Pi Ekk is a good coach because he doesn’t put pressure on us,” the 14-year-old said. “He taught us to meditate for a few minutes to calm down and have concentration before a game.”

Chatthahan said he cried “many times” after Chantawong and his team-mates went into the cave and did not come out. “He would always also take us biking in the mountains, and this was not our team’s first time going to the cave,” the teenager said while the rescue operations were still under way. “He likes to help others and he is a cheerful person. We miss him as much as we miss our friends in the cave.”

Songpol said: “I have never doubted him because I know Pi Ekk will be able to take care of my friends.”