New Documentary Follows Team of Autistic Swimmers

Swim Team is a documentary about a group of children who ultimately defy all odds. They are the ones who society has said don’t belong and will never achieve their biggest dreams. Swim Team, as the title suggests, follows a swim team in New Jersey made up entirely of children with autism. The documentary chronicles the members of the team, three in particular, who struggle physically, socially, and developmentally, but work hard to stand out in an area where few autistic children do. The messages of Swim Team are strong: Don’t allow others to set your limits for you, and hard work is the key to success, regardless of what you pursue. This award-winning film, released this week, premieres on July 7 in New York City and will air on PBS on October 2 as part of the series POV.
I spoke with Lara Stolman, the director and producer of Swim Team, about her career, the documentary, and the team itself.
How did you start producing documentaries?
I was a producer for NBC News for a number of years, and I [had] worked my way up to become a producer. I started off as a production assistant, and then I was an associate producer. It took a few years, and it wasn’t easy; it was a lot of work, but it was actually a very good training ground. The work that I did ended up airing on different NBC channels, and ultimately, I was producing hour-long documentaries. I had always been interested in telling stories through the documentaries. Even when I wasn’t working I was always looking for stories.
How is this documentary different from the other documentaries you have produced?
Well, the other work that I’ve done was for production companies and in those cases, I was told what to do or I was given a story or a subject matter and asked to find a story. This is the first independent film that I have produced. By independent, I mean that no one hired me; I decided that I wanted to make this film. Then I had to figure out how to fund it and how to sell it to a broadcaster or distributor. It’s a lot more difficult and it takes a lot longer.

Can you describe the community of the Jersey Hammerheads swim team?
It’s a group of kids who range in age from eight to—the oldest one was 22 at the time. The majority of kids on the team have never been on a competitive swim team before. They were all on the autism spectrum and some of them had multiple disabilities. Unfortunately, they just hadn’t had the opportunity to participate in community sports before. So this was a really special chance for the kids as well as for their families. What I noticed almost right away was the fantastic sense of camaraderie that they had developed and the great relationships that were forming between the kids and the families who were coming together on this team. Sports are very important in our country, and it’s important not just because of the health benefits or the fitness benefits, but also for the social benefits. And certainly in the suburbs, where families are raising kids, sports are an important part of the social life of a community. These are families who wouldn’t have access to these things, to the support and the social aspect of participating in community life. It was wonderful to see it happen with this team, with people who had never experienced this before.
How does the community on this swim team compare to the community on other swim teams?
I think that the community is very similar to the kinds of communities that form on other teams. I think that you can see in the film that the parents are very involved and care a lot about the progress that their kids make on the team, which you certainly see with parents of typical kids on swim teams or other sports teams with typical kids. And they got very competitive, which I certainly see where I live with other sports teams. Parents can be very competitive about their kids, and that certainly happened on the Jersey Hammerheads, and it happens in the film. The big difference, though, is that the families on the Hammerheads didn’t take for granted their swim team responsibilities. They didn’t complain about driving to practice or the time spent with their kids, supervising their kids to and from practices and events. They were thrilled to be there, thrilled to be included because these are families who haven’t been included in this kind of activity before.
How is coaching the Jersey Hammerheads different from coaching other teams?
Coach Mike [McQuay] says coaching a special needs team versus a regular swim team is night and day. I have to hand it to him because he has incredible flexibility and patience and willingness to do what it takes with each of the kids on the team. Each of them needs different techniques to teach them. For example, there’s a moment in the film where he’s coaching Mikey, his son, and he says, “Be the flying squirrel.” He was trying to get Mikey to spread out when he dives off the block. He’s using an animal term, knowing that Mikey responds to a comparison to an animal. And there’s another moment in the film when you see Coach Mike “negotiating” with Kelvin. Kelvin doesn’t want to get in the water and Coach Mike says, “Just try for me. How about you do this… how about this.” And he keeps negotiating and Kelvin keeps saying, “No, no, I don’t want to do it.” But Coach Mike doesn’t give up, and eventually, Kelvin dives in the water; he does what Coach Mike wanted him to.

How has the team itself changed the children who participate? What traits do they acquire as a result of being on the team?
I think one of the great things about this film is the scenes where you can see the camaraderie or the interaction between the kids. We see one of them, Robbie, emerge as a leader. I think one of the beautiful parts of this film is the growth of this team. These are kids who are on the autism spectrum, and they have difficulty with social interaction, so the fact that they were able to develop as a team and work together as a team and develop the relationships that we see them develop is very special.
The Hammerheads do a lot for the kids on the team and also provide support for the parents. Can you talk a little bit about that support?
I think this was kind of an unintended benefit with this team. It wasn’t like Coach Mike and Coach Maria said, “Join this team and you’ll get support.” I think what happened was organically, as the parents were coming together, bringing their kids to practice for the Jersey Hammerheads, and they met one another, they realized what they had in common, and beautiful friendships developed. It’s hard to meet other families who are going through what you’re going through. So it’s hard to find friends. And it’s hard to find supportive friends. I think that the Jersey Hammerheads swim team ended up being a wonderful community center for the families who were joining the team.

Have you been in touch with the athletes on the team?
Yes, and I love to stay in touch with them. They come to screenings, which is really fantastic. They are all still swimming. The main guys in the film, Kelvin, Mikey, and Robbie, are not all still swimming on the Jersey Hammerheads. Mikey is still on the team. Kelvin is on a different team, and Robbie moved, so he is swimming on a different team as well. But they are all doing well, and I stay in touch with them.
How has this team or the story of this team personally impacted you?
I say it all the time, but it’s true: This team has made me realize that we can’t give up on each other. Coach Mike says, “You can’t give up on your child,” but I really think that we can’t give up on one another. We have to be open to people who are different. In all situations: in school, in a workplace, and in the community. If somebody behaves differently, they may not be able to help it. But everyone has something to contribute. Everybody deserves our patience and our consideration. And I think that the film made me more open in that way.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Photographs by Nicole Chan (3)


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