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.
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)