Children's author Christina Soontornvat's first work of nonfiction, All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys' Soccer Team, is an extraordinary feat of research and storytelling. As BookPage reviewer Linda Castellitto observes in her starred review of the book, Soontornvat doesn't just recount the events of the rescue, she also includes "fascinating, accessible analyses—supplemented by photos, diagrams, maps and more—of the cultural, technological, scientific and spiritual considerations that affected the rescue effort, from Buddhism to climate change to political protocol." In this essay, Soontornvat shares what the members of the Wild Boars soccer team taught her.
Now that my book is almost out in the world and the early reception to it has been overwhelmingly positive, I feel comfortable admitting that I was terrified to write it. Though I had written novels and had a background in science writing for museums, All Thirteen was my first nonfiction book. It didn’t help that it dealt with perhaps the biggest news story to come out of Thailand in years, and one of the most talked about current events of my lifetime. The pressure I felt to do the story justice was overwhelming. Fortunately, I also dealt with very tight deadlines, so I didn’t have much time to dwell on self-doubt. But whenever I paused to think about how daunting my task was, I would feel huge waves of anxiety.
I never expected that researching the story of this rescue would not only help me overcome those fears but would also teach me important lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
When I flew to Thailand in October 2018 to conduct interviews and research, I had a vague idea of what the overarching theme of the book would be. I had planned to tell an uplifting success story of international cooperation. Now, don’t get me wrong: That theme completely applies to the cave rescue. The way that people from all over the world were able to come together to pull off the unprecedented mission is incredibly inspiring. If only our elected leaders could tackle every problem in this way!
But my main takeaway from my research, which became the central theme of the book, is a much deeper idea, and it is one that I have come back to again and again:
Mentality is everything, and hardship makes you resilient.
This is something I understood on some theoretical level before I started working on the book, but my research showed me real-life examples of why this is true.
Resilience and the ability to calm the mind were traits possessed by many of the rescuers who labored so hard aboveground to find the boys. It was particularly apparent in the rescue divers who dove each boy safely out of the cave. Cave diving is a dangerous business. It is vital not to panic, and yet the very act of cave diving puts you in situations that would be nearly impossible not to panic in. The men who rescued the boys and their coach were veteran rescue cave divers who have been through some pretty harrowing near-death scrapes in their careers. They are the best in the world at what they do because they stay calm, they don’t let their fear overtake their mental state, and they lean on their years of experience to solve new problems.
I learned so much from interviewing the rescuers, but the boys of the Wild Boars team ended up being my greatest teachers. When I first began this project, I could not fathom how a bunch of ordinary kids ages between the ages of 13 and 17 could have survived such a harrowing ordeal. They spent 10 days in near-total darkness, without food, suitable shelter, clean water or any communication with the outside world. But this was not the first time the Wild Boars had been tested.
They are an adventurous bunch; prior to their journey into the cave, they had gone on numerous excursions, biking up mountains and hiking to waterfalls. Together, they had already practiced pushing their bodies to their limits. And of course, on the soccer field, they had also tested themselves physically and practiced working together as a team. It’s true, none of these experiences even comes close to being trapped in a cave for 10 days in the dark. But I believe that facing challenges together made them resilient—both as individuals and also as a unit, which was key to their survival.
Their coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, was only 25 years old during the rescue, but already he had suffered many hardships. He lost most of his family to disease when he was just a child. Orphaned, he spent most of his youth living in temples, where he trained as a novice monk for years before he became a soccer coach. A fundamental principle in Buddhism is that we are our minds, and that by calming and retaining control over our mental state we can affect our physical well-being. The boys could not have had a better guide to keep their hopes alive while they waited in darkness.
Yes, these boys were ordinary. And that is what is so extraordinary about the rescue, and what I hope that readers take away from the book. We are all ordinary and extraordinary, too. No, we are not trapped in a dark cave miles below the earth. But I know that I am not alone in having experienced some dark moments in the past few months. But everything we need is inside us already. We are stronger than we think we are. We have been through difficult times, and we have made it out, and we will do so again. We are in control of our minds, which are the most important things to be in control of when everything else around us is spinning out of control.
The Wild Boars never gave up hope that they would make it out of the cave. Their hope kept them alive. Sometimes when I feel hopeless, I think about them. Why should I lose hope when they never did? It has been an honor to write this book and to share their story of hope and resilience with the world.
Author photo by Sam Bond