They were trapped for 18 days deep in a flooded cave system in Mae Sai, Thailand, without fresh air and — for much of it — without food. Yet, when the 12 members of the Wild Boars soccer team and their assistant coach were rescued in July, they emerged largely physically unscathed and without lasting damage to their bodies.
Observers say they seem not to have suffered psychologically either.
The boys, ages 11 to 16 when they were trapped, “actually are doing remarkably well,” says Vernon Unsworth, a cave expert who lives in Mae Sai, who assisted in the rescue and briefed the divers.
“I don’t think they’re been affected by what happened at all,” says Unsworth, 63.
One thing that has changed? Their level of fame since they were saved this summer while the world watched.
“We thought the were going to go back to being normal schoolboys, but really they’ve hit the spotlight,” Unsworth tells PEOPLE. “They’re world superstars now.”
That includes trips to the U.K., for the Pride of Britain Awards, and the U.S., to appear on Ellen in October.
“Not many children and their coach can go from very nearly perishing and now sort of like they’re never out of the spotlight,” Unsworth says.
He, like others, says the effects of such fame remain unclear longterm. “It’s an unusual situation, but from what I can see they’re probably doing better than me, actually,” he says.
“To be perfectly honest with you I don’t seen any mental scars at all,” he says.
ABC News’ chief national correspondent, Matt Gutman, who spent months reporting on the rescue for his new book, The Boys in the Cave, echoes Unsworth’s assessment.
“It doesn’t seem they have been traumatized in any way,” he tells PEOPLE.
Gutman, 40, says the boys have received psychological supervision, but “none of the parents I spoke with talked about nightmares or any lasting trauma.”
Still, he cautions: “It seems like they’re fine, they’ve done these whirlwind trips. But it’s also 12 little kids of varying ages and one may be suffering and we don’t know it. … There’d be no way for us to know.”
Gutman credits the boys and their coach, Ekkaphon Chanthawong (also known as coach Ek), for finding the resolve and mental strength to endure their captivity. The Thai Navy SEALs who joined them in their cave chamber more than a week in, as the rescue was plotted, were also helpful.
“They weren’t scared and they always had hope,” the boys’ translator said on Ellen last month. “They knew that if they don’t come out, eventually someone will have to come in and get them out.”
“When they’re calm they can figure out what they want to do next,” the translator said. “When they mediate, they conserve energy so that they’re not using too much energy in the cave.”
After being rescued, the boys were hospitalized for up to 10 days, with some suffering from pneumonia, Gutman says. But mostly they were re-nourished, building back up their weight.
(“Some of them have overdosed on Kentucky Fried Chicken,” Unsworth, who last saw the team in October, notes jokingly.)
Back at home, their parents have let them return to their usual routines of biking, hiking, schooling and soccer with friends.
It’s “incredible the degree to which the parents gave them their freedom back,” Gutman says.
He recalls one mother telling him that if “she tries to hold on too tight to her son, she’ll lose him.”
“The parents are slightly concerned about all of the fame as well, that it’s going to go to their head. At some point soon celebrity wears off, people are going to forget about them,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons the parents are so insistent on the kids getting their education.”
Despite their grueling ordeal and miraculous escape, the boys have not been cut off from the world, Gutman says.
“Their parents felt that the best way to rehabilitate them was to sort of let them go back and do the things they did before: riding bikes around Mae Sai, giving them the freedom they had before, and that was the best form of rehabilitation was to just let them be boys.”
The tight-knit community has been a boon to the boys’ recovery, Gutman says. However, they have not returned to the cave, Tham Luang.
“These children’s fate could just have easily been sealed the other way,” Gutman says.
“Truly,” he says, “[it’s] the most miraculous thing I’d ever heard of.”
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