THE soccer coach trapped with the Thai schoolboys in a flooded cave has cheated death before, aged 10, when a disease swept through his village, sparing only him.
Ekapol Chanthawong was the only member of his family who survived the epidemic which overcame his Northern Thailand home town in 2003.
The disease killed his seven-year-old brother, then his mother and father.
Until he was 12, Chanthawong was looked after by extended family but was a “sad and lonely” little boy, his aunt Umporn Sriwichai told The Australian newspaper.
Relatives decided to send the boy to a Buddhist temple to train to be a monk.
Chanthawong spent a decade at the temple, learning meditation and wearing a saffron robe.
He still returns to the temple to stay and meditate with other monks.
But three years ago, at the Mae Sai Prasitsart school in the northernmost district of the Chiang Rai province near a border crossing into Myanmar, a soccer team was set up.
They called themselves the Moo Pa, or Wild Boars, and began competing in provincial competitions.
Many of the players came from ethnic minorities and poor families.
Some of the boys in the team now trapped with Chanthawong in the cave had been playing for the team since they were eight or nine years old.
Chanthawong was reportedly an assistant to the team’s coach and helped trained team members after school every day, and was said to have dedicated himself to the team.
“He loves those boys very much because he lost his father,” Ms Sriwichai said.
The school and the Wild Boar Academy are in the Doi Nang Non mountain range, a short drive from the 10km long Tham Luang cave system.
Reports say that Chanthawong was assigned temporary manager of the Wild Boars team on the day the team coach, Nopparat Kathawong, was elsewhere.
The boys became trapped when they entered the cave system, leaving their shoes and bags near the mouth of the cave to write their names on the wall.
Dutch cave diver Ben Raymanents spoke with the trapped boys who told him it was a kind of initiation ritual.
Ms Sriwichai said the monastery Chanthawong lived in for ten years taught him to be a “healthy, physically and mentally” young man.
She said he had learned the survival skills which were now helping him and the schoolboys survive in their subterranean trap.
“I always believed that Chantawong would help them keep calm and optimistic, and he loved us very much,” Ms Sriwichai said.
“Because he had experienced the pain of losing loved ones since he was very young … we cannot stand such tragedies anymore.”
But Chanthwong is now reportedly suffering from malnutrition, after giving too much of the available food in the cave to the boys.
Two of the boys are also suffering from the same condition, and concerns grow over the group’s mental wellbeing in the dark, claustrophobic chamber.
In the short term malnutrition causes tiredness, irritability, depression and the suppression of the immune system.
In more severe cases, breathing becomes difficult and sufferers lose interest in food or drink, not matter how abundant it may be.
The trapped boys and their coach have food enough now for four months, but rescuers want to evacuate the groups as soon as possible before cave floods again in the monsoonal rains.
There is talk of leaving the sick behind because they could not cope with the highly difficult rescue taking at least four hours over 3kms underwater and in oxygen starved chambers.
Ekapol Chanthawong will need all his survival skills to cheat death yet again.