MAE SAI (Thailand) • A youth football team and their coach led a charity race yesterday near the Tham Luang cave which they entered exactly one year ago, emerging weak but safe 18 nail-biting days later.
The dangerous and unprecedented mission to save the 12 boys and their coach, who were stuck in floodwaters in the cave in northern Thailand last June 23, captivated the world.
The last of the "Wild Boars" - as their team was known - emerged nearly three weeks later, after specialist divers carefully sedated them before extracting them through the narrow, flooded passageways.
Yesterday, 11 of the young footballers joined around 5,000 joggers and cyclists wearing sports jerseys or fancy dress for a race near the cave that is still closed today. One runner even braved the heat in a wet suit while others wore inflatable animal costumes and colourful headgear.
They ran past a statue of Thai Navy Seal diver Saman Gunan, who died during the rescue from the depths of the water-logged cave. Thousands of rescuers, diving experts, soldiers, police and volunteers worked on the rescue around the clock.
One of the cave boys said the incident has changed his life. "I've experienced so much... I learnt a lot about the Thai people, especially our unity," 17-year-old Pornchai Kamluang said yesterday.
Three of the boys and their coach Ekkapol Chantawong were stateless at the time of the incident, having never received a birth certificate or passport.
They were all granted citizenship after their rescue and with the rest of the team have travelled the world to meet football stars, attend charity events and even headlined the hugely popular Ellen Degeneres daytime talk show in the United States.
Some are hoping that yesterday's race will become an annual event.
"It's important that we never forget what happened in June and July last year," said British cave diver Vern Unsworth. He had worked with fellow divers Richard Stanton and John Volanthen, who found the emaciated boys trapped on a ledge deep inside the cave a full nine days after they went missing with little food or water in tow.
Today, the boys are no longer gaunt - many still dream of becoming football stars and still train with "Coach Ek" who now runs his own football academy.
"I'm thankful for all the officials who last year spent their time to help me and the boys get out safely," said Mr Ekkapol after running 6km with the boys.
Organisers said the money raised yesterday will go towards the redevelopment of Tham Luang cave. The authorities are hoping to reopen the cave as a learning centre for the droves of tourists - local and foreign - who now visit.