While Adul Samon ’27 is adjusting to the challenges of settling into life at Middlebury like many other first-year students, he is no stranger to difficult situations.
Samon was one of 12 boys rescued after they became trapped in a cave in Thailand in 2018. The boys, along with their soccer coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, were trapped in Tham Luang Cave in Northern Thailand for 17 days after heavy rain blocked the path out of the cave. Samon and his teammates have received international media attention for the situation over the past five years. Most recently, NBC’s Today Show came to Middlebury earlier this semester to film a feature on Samon.
The soccer team had been exploring the caves when the water began rising rapidly. Samon and his teammates fled deeper into the caves to escape the water, and became trapped in an air pocket roughly four kilometers from the entrance to the cave, according to the New York Times.
“It was a mix of feelings: scared, hopeless, everything. I think we experienced all the emotions,” Samon told The Campus.
While trapped in the cave, Samon said, he and his teammates and coach relied on hope to get them through.
“We couldn’t do anything,” he said. “We tried for like the whole nine days, but we couldn’t do anything. So the only way that we could hope you know, was for people to come in and help get us out. So we always had the hope that people would come eventually.”
International teams of rescuers and volunteers assembled to search for Samon and his teammates before they eventually located them. But after British divers discovered all of them alive, the challenge became figuring out how to get them out.
“We didn’t talk to people from the outside world, we didn’t see light, we didn't hear the sounds of anything. Then, after we saw a single person, a living person, it was just like oh wow, all the hope that we had, you know, it just became real. The hope that we had, it’s not just hope, it’s real, they found us,” Samon said. “The next thing was, were we going to be able to get out?”
The rescue was no easy feat. The path out of the cave was mostly flooded, and some sections were extremely narrow. None of the boys had any diving experience, and the journey took experienced divers several hours to complete. On top of this because it was the beginning of Monsoon season, additional heavy rain threatened the rescue efforts.
Samon and the others were given an anesthetic to render them unconscious and prevent them from panicking while the divers led them out of the cave. All 12 of the boys and their coach were carried out of the cave over the course of a few days.
“I regained consciousness in the hospital, so I didn’t really know much of the process or what was happening when they got us out,” Samon said.
When he later woke up, he said, it felt like a miracle.
“We were hopeless, right? And we didn’t know what we were going to do. We weren’t sure that we were going to be able to get out,” he said. “When I woke up in the hospital, I just felt like, wow, this is a miracle. This is impossible.”
Although Samon was only 14 at the time, he was recognized for being instrumental in the rescue by using the small amount of English he knew at the time to communicate with rescuers.
“I was just doing what I had to do, what I needed to do,” he said. “I was able to use my skill of speaking English to communicate with the British divers, but that was it. I wasn’t really able to communicate a lot, I just knew a little bit of basic conversation.”
Though it was certainly an experience he says he will never forget, Samon does not feel like the time spent in the cave impacted his life in a negative way.
“A lot of people worried about us, me and my friends. They worried that the bad experience would show up again. But for me, I don’t feel like the experience affected me at all, because it didn’t really do anything for me in a negative way. But instead, I feel like from that experience I learned a lot and I grew a lot. Just like how to endure in a tough situation,” Samon said.
Samon even cited some positive outcomes from the disaster. He said that after being in the cave with the other boys for such a long period of time, and trying to survive with them, they all became very close and still feel very connected.
The accident and subsequent media attention also resulted in educational opportunities for Samon. He had not previously considered continuing his education in the United States but after being rescued he was offered the opportunity to finish high school at the Masters School, a private school in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.
High school in the United States brought its own challenges for Samon. When he arrived at the Masters School as a sophomore, he only knew very basic English.
“Not speaking English, and then coming to the United States and actually having to learn, but not in my native language was really, really tough,” he said. “But I went through it, because that’s what I really wanted.”
Samon lived with a host family in New York throughout his high school years, including during the Covid-19 pandemic, and he grew very close to them.
When Samon graduated from the Masters School last spring, Rick Stanton, one of the British divers who helped rescue Samon and the other boys, attended the ceremony. “It was so nice to see him, it was really lovely,” Samon said.
Samon initially learned about Middlebury as a result of the media attention he received. In 2019, President Laurie Patton awarded Samon with the Inaugural Global Citizens Award for his instrumental role in the rescue. When he visited Middlebury in 2020 to accept the award, Samon said he already felt a connection to the school.
During his stay in Vermont to receive the award, Samon met three Thai students who attended Middlebury. They helped with translating and shared their experiences at the college, which Samon said really sold him on Middlebury.
“I felt like I already had connections and stuff like that, and I love it here. So I just thought, why not apply?” he said.
His spotlight in the news continued when he arrived at Middlebury as a student himself.
On Oct. 21, a team from NBC’s Today Show visited Middlebury to interview Samon for an upcoming feature about his story. The team filmed in Axinn Center for the Humanities and in Samon’s dorm room. Prior to filming the segment at Middlebury, the team filmed Samon and his host family at his high school in New York. The segment is set to air on the Today Show in mid-November.
“The experience for me, is something I can’t forget about,” he said. “It’s my experience and I want to share it now. So that’s why having a movie about my story is just really nice.”
There have also been multiple movies and documentaries made about the rescue. Samon said he feels they have been true to his experience, and that the producers did a great job making them. But of the actual rescue, Samon doesn’t remember much.
“We didn’t know much about getting out,” he said. “I heard after that it was a really tough decision to help get us out of the cave, because it wasn’t easy with the water and the rain. They were scared, right? And they really needed to make a careful decision.”
So far, Samon said, his experience at Middlebury has been even better than he expected.
“I’m loving this place,” he said. “The people here especially, and also the professors, they are just really approachable. Because I need it. Because I know that college is not going to be easy, so to be able to talk with professors and you know, ask for help, it’s very nice.”
Despite the media coverage he has received over the last five years, right now Samon is mostly interested in the same things other Middlebury students are. He hopes to continue settling into life at Middlebury, and focusing on his schoolwork. He wants to play more soccer next fall and find some time to play volleyball during J-Term.