Two amateur divers who canceled their vacation plans to join what they thought was a hopeless mission to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Thailand on Friday received one of Australia’s most prestigious awards.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison presented Australian of the Year Award 2019 trophies to anesthetist Richard Harris and his dive buddy Craig Challen, a retired veterinarian, at a ceremony in the national capital Canberra on the eve of Australia’s national day.

An Australian of the Year is chosen by a government-appointed board to celebrate the achievements and contributions to society of eminent citizens who are regarded as role models for their nation.

Harris was nominated by his home state of South Australia and Challen by his state of Western Australia. They were chosen from eight state and territory nominees.

The complex rescue against the odds by an international team in July captured international attention. Both Australians have conceded they didn’t expect that all 13 team members trapped in the cave for two week would emerge alive.

The boys and their 25-year-old coach entered the cave on June 23 for a quick exploration, but flooding quickly blocked the exit and they had to retreat deeper inside the cave. Heavy rains raised water levels further and thwarted the initial searches before two British divers on July 2 found the group huddled on a dry patch of ground, safe but hungry.

Harris and Challen arrived at the cave on July 6 and reached the team the next day.

Harris sedated the 13 before they began their journey out over three days, fearing panic in the dark and confined cave system was a major threat to their survival.

Challen helped remove the team’s masks and wetsuits as the boys and coach were brought out on stretches through dry places. He then prepared them for their next dive through flooded sections of the cave.

Their citations say that Harris’s medical expertise was key in the plan to get the children out. After swimming through the narrow caverns to assess the health of those trapped and giving the medical all-clear for each evacuee, he remained behind until the last team member was safe.

The citation also says Challen’s technical expertise was critical to the operation. He played a leading role, working 10-12 hours each day in extremely dangerous conditions to swim the children one-by-one through the dark and narrow flooded passageways.

Two weeks after the rescue, the pair were awarded the Star of Courage, the second-highest civilian bravery decoration in the Australian honors system after the Cross of Valor.

The two friends had been planning to take a cave diving vacation together when they were invited to Thailand.

Sign up to receive our latest news!

By submitting this form, I agree to the terms.