MAE SAI, Thailand — A year after they became trapped in a flooded cave at the start of a two-week ordeal, some of the 12 young Thai soccer players and their coach marked the anniversary of the drama on Sunday that propelled them into celebrities.
Around 4,000 people took part in the marathon and biking event Sunday morning, organized by local authorities to raise funds to improve conditions at the now famous Tham Luang cave complex in northern Thailand.
The youngsters went in to explore before rain-fed floodwaters pushed them deep inside the dark complex. Their rescue was hailed as nothing short of a miracle.
Nine of the boys and their coach ran the marathon, donning the event's orange T-shirts and looking notably taller and older. The Wild Boars teammates were at the center of attention as they smiled and posed for photos.
The boys and their coach have since become celebrities, represented by the 13 Tham Luang Co. Ltd ., which Thailand's government helped establish to look after their interests.
"I want to thank everybody who has put so much effort and sacrifices to save all of us," said Ekapol Chantawong, a former Wild Boars team coach. He stood in front of the bronze statue of Lieutenant Commander Saman Gunan, a Thai navy SEAL who lost his life rescuing the trapped boys.
Abbot Prayutjetiyanukarn, a monk in the local neighborhood who interacts with the team every week, told The Associated Press that some of the boys were wary of the media and try to avoid the press whenever they can.
"But they are fine, both physically and spiritually, there's nothing to worry about," he said.
Last year's sensational rescue was initially led only by Thailand's navy SEALs but the task proved extremely difficult. They turned to international rescuers and cave explorers, and crucially, cave diving experts who located the boys and coach before bringing them out July 10, 2018.
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.
Many local and foreign rescuers returned for Sunday's run.
"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 were crucial to the rescue operation.
"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.
The cave and the town of Mae Sai in the mountainous province on the border with Myanmar are now flooded with curious tourists.
The cave's surrounding amenities, which just last year primarily featured dirt roads and thick mud, has seen some significant renovations with facilities being built, roads paved, and shops settling in.
Local souvenir shopkeepers said that the boys' ordeal has increased 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, Thum Luang has officially become the financial hub of Mae Sai district."