Swimmers on the spectrum dive into competition

Swimmers on the spectrum dive into competition

Short Hills filmmaker calls her documentary ‘act of tikkun olam’

“Swim Team” follows the Jersey Hammerheads, a team comprised of teens on the autism spectrum. Photo by Nicole Chan
“Swim Team” follows the Jersey Hammerheads, a team comprised of teens on the autism spectrum. Photo by Nicole Chan

The atmosphere is electric in The College of New Jersey’s Aquatic Center in Ewing; the stands are packed with cheering fans for the big relay race. “Go, go, go,” screams Coach Mike McQuay. Parents, tears in their eyes, clap and scream encouragement. It’s a moment they will never forget and one their boys have sometimes struggled to reach: racing for gold. 

Meet the 2014 Jersey Hammerheads, the champion swim team comprised of teens on the autism spectrum and the subject of Lara Stolman’s award-winning documentary “Swim Team.” 

The film covers the Hammerhead’s journey from its inception in 2013 to its triumphant win at the 2014 New Jersey Special Olympics Summer Games. Stolman’s documentary has been screened at 30 international film festivals and received more than 10 awards. It will air on PBS’ POV on Oct. 2. 

The Short Hills filmmaker is an award-winning television news and documentary producer whose work has appeared on NBC, MSNBC, TLC, AMC, VH-1, and The New York Times website. She first conceived of the idea for “Swim Team,” her first feature documentary film, during the 2013 High Holy Day season. 

“I think the whole notion of taking stock of the year and how to become a better person — that is part of my spiritual practice during Rosh HaShanah — contributed to my arriving at the decision to pursue this film,” Stolman told NJJN. “I knew making ‘Swim Team’ wasn’t about money or fame — making this film was an act of service and an act of tikkun olam.” 

For Stolman, the film’s subject was also personal: She has a child on the autism spectrum. 

Having had no significant exposure to individuals with disabilities, Stolman began educating herself when her son was first diagnosed. After learning that drowning is the leading cause of death in children with autism (specifically for those who wander), having him learn to swim immediately became a priority, especially because she had a pool in her own backyard. 

Stolman met McQuay and his wife, Maria, in the fall of 2013, after hearing that the coach taught kids with autism to swim, including his own son, Mikey. That was when she learned the McQuays were putting together a competitive swim team for children across the spectrum. Practices would take place at the Raritan Bay Area YMCA, with most of the swimmers coming from Middlesex County. (Stolman’s son was too young to participate at the time.)

Stolman was blown away because of Coach Mike’s determination to hold his swimmers to the same standards as members of developmentally typical teams, and when he stated — emphatically — that the Hammerheads would dominate the competition, she knew immediately that she had to make a film about this story.

Although “people with disabilities do great things,” she wanted to focus on more than that aspect. “I wanted to shine a light on what it’s like to raise children with autism or developmental disabilities: the financial burden, the isolation, the fear of what will happen when you are not around.”

Prior to the establishment of the Hammerheads, the coach’s son had already been chosen for New Jersey’s swim team at the Special Olympics USA Games, a national competition held every four years. The Jersey Hammerheads, which competes in local and regional Special Olympics competitions, would provide Mikey and the other swimmers with a six-month season of competitive meets. 

What the McQuays never foresaw is that Mikey would emerge as a leader and, at long last, find friendship and camaraderie among his peers. 

The 2014 Jersey Hammerheads had 17 swimmers, and Stolman narrowed her film’s focus to the three members of the relay team, Mikey, Robbie, and Kelvin. The first day of shooting coincided with the first day of practice in January 2014, and filming continued through the team’s final meet of the season. 

“Initially, I thought this would be a story about an unlikely sports team led by a coach with very high expectations,” said Stolman. “I hoped those high expectations would make a difference in their progress. My plan was to begin the film with the first practice and end with the June meet, the end of their first season.”

As the season unfolded, however, Stolman realized the story was more than a sports narrative and shouldn’t end with the final race. Instead, viewers meet Mikey, Robbie, Kelvin, and their families one year after the gold medal race in the last few minutes of the documentary, a poignant coda to a film that is both heartbreaking and inspirational, often at the same time. 

Stolman describes “Swim Team” as “an act of activism,” a natural outgrowth of her Jewish values and strong identity. 

“There is so much work that needs to be done to make our communities truly inclusive of individuals with developmental disabilities and I knew this film, if it was shown widely, could help change people’s hearts and minds and influence real world change,” she said.

“It goes back to the Torah  [and humans] being made in God’s image,” she said. “I’d like to see the world, my community, get to a place where inclusion is not a charity, or mitzvah — it’s just the way we do things.” 

Stolman used her own money to fund the documentary when she began the project, pitching the film and applying for grants. She knew it was a financial gamble, but one she felt compelled to take. In April 2015, The New York Times commissioned a short film about the Hammerheads for its website and promoted the project, which led to her securing the necessary funds. Among her backers, Stolman received “significant” financial support from the Aetna Foundation and Easterseals, though she declined to disclose specific amounts.

For information about “Swim Team,” or to host a screening in a school, community, or synagogue, visit swimteamthefilm.com.

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