The documentary film follows a diverse group of teens on the autism spectrum as they train and compete on the New Jersey Hammerhead Swim Team. The self-confidence, leadership and social skills these athletes exhibit throughout the film prove to serve them well beyond the pool deck.
We were able to go behind the scenes with Lara Stolman, the director and producer of Swim Team, to discuss her experience in making the film, the ability of sport to create communities and how she hopes this film will inspire others.
You are already an accomplished producer and director but this is your first feature documentary film. What inspired you to create this documentary?
My professional background is in tv and film and I’ve always worked for big companies. I did what I was told to do with the subject I was given. When you’re a creative, you’re always looking for what your project will be. When it came time to make my own film, what would be my story to tell? It’s not easy to make an independent film with limited resources. I needed to be passionate about the subject and willing to accept the struggle of financing and producing it.
In the meantime, life is happening. I had three kids and one was diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Because of that, I became an expert on autism. Since drowning is the leading cause of death for kids on the autism spectrum (they have an atypical lack of fear) it was really important for our family to be water safe. When it came time to find a swim program, I came across the New Jersey Hammerheads, and it was such a refreshing experience. The McQuays (Mike and Maria who coach the team) were so motivated and positive that I was just swept up in their enthusiasm. I felt like I needed to have the positivity and the energy of the Team in my own life. This was clearly a story that needed to be told.
It can be difficult for kids on the spectrum to find opportunities to participate in sports. Can you talk about why the Hammerheads Swim Team is valuable to your community?
Sports are crucial for community building. We live in the suburbs and sports are so important when raising kids; not only for their health but also for their social interactions. Sports are a great way to form friendships and form community bonds. These bonds and relationships can develop as early as age two.
If your child is different, it’s so much harder for them to participate. Organizations are not necessarily open or welcoming to children with special needs. It can be very isolating not only for the child, but also for families .Your ‘typical’ families may take this for granted, but sports practice and competitions can be a great way for parents to share information and socialize. For the families on the New Jersey Hammerheads, they didn’t have a place to meet and socialize with other families. The Hammerheads offered them the opportunity to make friends, share information and not feel so isolated. The Swim Team is so valuable to this community because these families formed bonds and relationships that they wouldn’t have otherwise.
Having a close-knit community seemed especially important for the parents of Swim Team. Did that surprise you when you were filming?
Looking back, I didn’t quite understand how wonderful it would be. It’s important for families raising kids with challenges to be able to connect with one another and help one another. A majority of the families would stay during practice. Some kids need more assistance than others, so their parents were with them all the time. During the time kids were in pool, parents could just hang out and sit together- it was a great bonding experience. Families became friends and began spending time together outside of the pool. The social opportunities sports provide are often overlooked but are a huge benefit for the parents as well as the kids.
Mike and Maria McQuay (the coaches of the New Jersey Hammerheads) have very high expectations for their swimmers. How do these standards aid the swimmers in their personal growth?
That’s what’s so special about the team and the main reason I decided to film with the Hammerheads. They were not treating the swimmers with kid gloves; they were not extra gentle with them. There were kids who didn’t know how to swim and their mindset was “we’re not only going to teach you to swim, you’re going to compete. You’re capable of doing it.” This is what my family initially found difficult when looking for a program. Often in Special Education programs, expectations are not high, they are actually quite low. It just seems like such a shame; there are so many missed opportunities. So many of the kids have gifts and talents. A great example of this is Robbie. In watching him practice with ‘typical’ kids, you are unable to see that he has any sort of challenge. I hate to think that when he was younger he may have missed out on opportunities because his teachers or his coaches didn’t hold him to high enough standards. We can see he has natural leadership qualities among his peers when working with Mike and Maria. We need to have high expectations for all of our children. This film sheds light on how kids can contribute and excel when we show them they can.
You mentioned when Robbie is swimming he is unrecognizable from ‘typical’ kids. This is true with many of the swimmers of the New Jersey Hammerheads. What about being the water can benefit children and teens with autism?
When I first met the McQuays, I was taken back with Mikey’s (Mike and Maria’s son) swimming. You had no idea he struggled with anything. Swimming provides a number of benefits for kids that are on the spectrum. Many families have told me how much their children (who are on the spectrum) love the water. These are all anecdotal; there’s no scientific study proving these benefits. However, I think the film speaks for itself that swimming is not only great for these kids physically but also gives them the opportunity to learn, to grow, and to feel a part of their community.
The production of this film follows the New Jersey Hammerheads for an entire year, what were some of the challenges you faced in creating this film?
Initially, there was a looming creative challenge: How do we film in a way that was going to be visually satisfying? We’ve all become accustomed to seeing Olympic swimming coverage which is cost prohibitive. We needed to be underwater and feature close-up shots, and the film needed to be aesthetically comparable with productions that have way higher budgets. A significant amount of time was spent thinking about if we could afford to do it. I worked with an exceptional director of photography, who everyday put on a wetsuit, encased her camera so it could be submerged in water, and swam with the kids. We also did lots of our work with GoPros. Being creative with GoPros was huge for the visually aesthetic aspect of this film.
The other major challenge was who do we choose to feature? There were 17 kids on the team and I honestly found all of them to be incredibly lovable and interesting. The problem, of course, was we couldn’t do a film focusing on 17 people. In the end, we chose seven of the swimmers and did an in-depth background into their everyday lives. We interviewed their family members, we filmed them at school, it required a lot of juggling. There was one day at practice though, I was thinking about the relay team. The storyline of their ability in the water versus their struggle out of the water was most apparent with them. They were the star swimmers but they were also going through a pivotal period in their lives. They were graduating high school which meant the services paid by school system were waning (funds are available until age 21) so it was a transitional time for their families. We decided to feature the swimmers on this relay team for these reasons and I believe it was the right choice.
Were there any scenes or topics that you wanted to include that didn’t make it into the film?
Unfortunately, there were a few kids that we weren’t able to share their stories. One child, who I was particularly interested in, has difficulty with language but is a very gifted piano player. He can’t speak but he is able to express himself with music. Autism is so unique and manifests itself in so many different ways. I really have adapted the saying “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
What do you hope people take away from this film?
I hope people who see this leave feeling inspired. If they are not connected directly to autism, I hope they leave with a greater understanding that people with autism have gifts to give. When you have kids diagnosed on the spectrum, you tend to receive a lot of negativity; you get told ‘no’ a lot. Most of our kids have been ostracized from public school and community sports. This film is about the magic of when people say ‘yes’.
Swim Team is now available for individuals and groups to host a screening –consider hosting a screening for Autism Awareness Month in April. Visit their website: www.swimteamthefilm.com and click Host An Event.