MAE SAI, Thailand (AP) — When the 12 young boys and their soccer coach walked into a cave complex in northern Thailand a year ago Sunday, they didn't know their lives were going to forever change.
Rising floodwater quickly trapped the youngsters inside the Tham Luang cave complex, setting off a more than two-week ordeal that the world watched with rapt attention and that left the members of the Wild Boars soccer club with a survival tale that propelled them into celebrities.
Nine of the boys and their coach were on hand Sunday in the northern town of Mae Sai to mark the anniversary along with some 4,000 others by taking part in a marathon and bike event to raise money to improve conditions at the cave.
"I want to thank everybody who has put so much effort and sacrifices to save all of us," said Ekapol Chantawong, the former coach of the Wild Boars who led the boys on the ill-fated visit to the cave.
Ekapol stood in front of a bronze statue of Lieutenant Commander Saman Gunan that has been erected to honor the former Thai navy SEAL who died while working on the search and rescue.
The boys spent nine nights lost in the cave, living on very little food and water, before they were found spotted deep in the twisting cave complex huddled on a patch of dirt above the rising water line. It was a moment captured on video and soon broadcast to the world.
It would be another eight days — until July 10 — before they were all safe.
Also on hand Sunday were a number of the local and foreign divers who took part in the search and rescue operation, which due to its danger and difficulty has been hailed by many as a miracle.
The operation required placing oxygen canisters along the path where the divers maneuvered dark, tight and twisting passageways filled with muddy waters and strong currents.
"Not many children could have survived the way they did, so we have to respect them for that," said Vernon Unsworth, a British diver whose advice and experience played a key part in the search for the boys and their eventual rescue.
"What we should do right now is to just let them get on with their lives. Just let them grow up like normal kids," he said.
A year later the boys are notably older and taller. Wearing orange T-shirts from the event, they smiled and posed for photos. They have grown familiar with the attention they receive, though are not altogether comfortable with it.
Abbot Prayutjetiyanukarn, a monk in the local neighborhood who interacts with the team every week, told The Associated Press that some of the boys are wary of the media and try to avoid the press whenever they can.
"But they are fine, both physically and spiritually," he said. "There's nothing to worry about."
Three of the players as well as Ekapol were stateless and were granted Thai citizenship last August.
The team traveled last year to Argentina and the U.S. The boys and their coach are represented by the 13 Tham Luang Co. Ltd., which Thailand's government helped establish to manage business opportunities stemming from the ordeal. Netflix has acquired the rights to their story.
It wasn't only the boys who were changed by the events of last summer. This town in mountainous Chiang Rai province near the border with Myanmar is now firmly on the tourist map, with curious travelers from all over the world flocking to see where the story of the Wild Boars unfolded.
The cave's surrounding amenities, which just last year primarily featured dirt roads and thick mud, has seen significant renovations with facilities being built, roads paved and shops settling in.
Local souvenir shopkeepers said that the attention has improved their fortunes.
"Since the kids have been rescued, the economy around here keeps getting better," said Lek Yodnum, a shop owner who sells T-shirts and memorabilia of the cave rescue.
"Before the kids became trapped, there wasn't a single shop around here. It was all just farm and field," he said. "Now, Tham Luang has officially become the financial hub of Mae Sai district."
The 12 boys and their coach were scheduled to attend a Buddhist merit-making ceremony at Tham Luang on Monday.
Associated Press writer Kaweewit Kaewjinda in Bangkok contributed to this report.
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