'Stateless' soccer player trapped in Thai cave who speaks five languages was key in daring rescue efforts

A displaced teen who escaped conflicts in Myanmar nearly a decade ago emerged as a hero after he and his soccer team became trapped in a Thai cave, using his proficiency in multiple languages to assist in coordinating the rescue mission with divers and officials.

Adul-Sam-on was only six years old when he fled his home country. His parents slipped him out of the self-governing Wa region — well known for guerrilla warfare and drug trafficking — and into Thailand with the hopes that he would have a better life and receive an education there, the New York Times reported.

At 14, he does not have an official home and is not a citizen of any country. He’s considered “stateless,” but Adul is the top student in his class at the Ban Wiang Phan School in Mae Sai, where 20 percent of the students are similarly considered stateless.

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His academic record and his soccer skills have also earned him free tuition and daily lunch.

“Stateless children have a fighting spirit that makes them want to excel,” the school’s principal, Punnawit Thepsurin, told the Times.

That would never prove more true for Adul than when he and the Wild Boars soccer team became trapped in a Tham Luang Cave in Northern Thailand. The boys had explored caves before and eagerly made their way through the winding passageways on June 23 — but heavy rainfall flooded their path to the exit and left them stranded.

The team spent ten days drinking the water that dripped from the cave walls until a pair of British divers found them taking shelter nearly three miles inside the underwater complex.

In video streamed worldwide shortly after the rescue, Adul can be seen wide-eyed and thin in the depths of the cave alongside his eleven teammates.

“I’m Adul, I’m in good health,” the 14-year-old said in Thai, offering a traditional “Wa” greeting — which signals politeness. In addition to speaking both Thai and Wa, Adul is also proficient in Burmese, Mandarin, and English.

His diverse knowledge of languages allowed him not only to speak on behalf of his team but coordinate and communicate between rescuers and the terrified soccer players.

Adul questioned divers on how long they’d been trapped and told their rescuers that getting food was their top priority. “Eat, eat, eat” one his friends piped in, prompting the teen to let him know that he’d already addressed that.

His teacher, Kru Nice, said she was not surprised to learn Adul stepped up amid the harrowing situation, telling CBS News that he’d always been a leader.

An elite team of 19 divers was tasked with extracting the young athletes and the coach from the cave, emerging with the first four boys on Sunday, another four on Monday and the final four boys and their coach around 8 p.m. local time Tuesday. All in all, they’d spent 18 days fighting for life in the cavern.

“He’s a miracle boy,” Nice said. “I’m happy he’s safe.”

The Wild Boar soccer team on Thursday remained in the hospital in good spirits. Video from inside the medical facility has shown them waving and flashing peace signs while doctors and nurses mill about checking vitals.

The first batch of boys rescued Sunday have normal heart rates and no fevers, though two of them are recovering from lung infections, said Jedsada Chokdumrongsuck, secretary of the Public Health Ministry.

Two of the four boys rescued in the second wave have mild fevers. And three people rescued on Tuesday are suffering from middle ears infection and three still have fevers, though they are easing, the secretary said.

Chiang Rai province acting Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn praised all involved in the rescue efforts, especially the coordination between Thai and international volunteers.

“The situation when beyond being just a rescue mission and became a symbol of unity among mankind,” he said. “Everyone worked together without discrimination of race or religion as the ultimate goal was to save the youth football team.”

With News Wire Services