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A coming-of-age story that shows how sports transcend disabilities
When doctors told Michael and Maria McQuay that their son with autism would never be self-sufficient, the pair responded by seeking out a series of therapies and programs for him. After discovering there was a dearth of suitable public services, they formed their own swim team for children with developmental disabilities. “So many people don’t give our kids a chance to do anything,” says Maria.
Lara Stolman’s inspiring debut documentary, Swim Team, follows three diverse young men—Michael McQuay Jr., Robert Justino and Kelvin Truong—from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, who fall on the autism spectrum. New Jersey reports the highest rate of autism in the country, with one in 26 boys on the spectrum. On the McQuays’ team, the Jersey Hammerheads, these young men find inclusion, independence and space to achieve their loftiest goals.
Swim Team has its national broadcast premiere on the PBS documentary series POV (Point of View) on Monday, October 2, 2017 at 10 p.m (check local listings). POV is American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, now in its 30th season.
At its heart, the eye-opening film Swim Team chronicles the hard work and dedication the Hammerheads undertake to make life work in, and out, of the swimming pool. Justino dreams of making video games, despite predictions from his teachers that store clerking will be the only job available to him. Truong, who also has Tourette’s syndrome, struggles with controlling verbal and physical outbursts.
Compassionate and perceptive, filmmaker Stolman also manages to capture the parents’ hopes and frustrations. As Truong’s mother shows the holes that Truong has made in the walls at home, she maintains a smile, though her voice quavers at times. Stolman makes clear that the parents face financial burdens, compounded by an underfunded public school system ill-equipped to support special-needs children and young adults.
The Jersey Hammerheads rack up medals and eventually make it to the state Summer Games at the Special Olympics. One member of the team even goes on to compete in the national Special Olympics games.
The Hammerheads feel most comfortable in the pool’s fast lane. “When I’m swimming,” says Michael McQuay Jr., “I feel normal.”
“With the Hammerheads families, I found a group of parents who refused to take no for an answer,” said Stolman. “They were saying yes, and as a community it was galvanizing for them. As a mother, I was so personally inspired by what they hoped to accomplish; I knew I had to share their story. I hope my film provides inspiration for families everywhere raising children with unanticipated challenges.”
“More than just a heartening sports saga, Swim Team brings to light the systemic challenges confronting teenagers with developmental disabilities and their parents,” said Justine Nagan, executive producer/executive director of POV/American Documentary. “For too many, public resources and programs are either nonexistent or few and far between. In this film, we see how autism affects people of varied backgrounds, including those in communities of color and working-class families. Swim Team, with the stories of the Hammerheads and their parents, explores all of these issues and is a compelling, cheer-worthy sports film: a win-win for audiences all around.”
About the Filmmaker:
Lara Stolman, Director, Producer
Lara Stolman is an award-winning director, producer and writer whose work has appeared on NBC, MSNBC, TLC, AMC, VH1 and The New York Times website. Her film Portraits of Survival, about coming to terms with the tragedy of 9/11 through art, premiered at the Hamptons International Film Festival, aired on MSNBC and was awarded a CINE Golden Eagle.
For Swim Team, her first feature documentary film, she was named an IFP Filmmaker Lab Fellow, was awarded the New York Women in Film and Television Loreen Arbus Disability Awareness grant and was provided with funding from Easterseals, the Aetna Foundation and the Karma Foundation. Swim Team has screened at more than 30 international festivals, has won more than 10 awards and was released theatrically in July 2017.
Stolman has guest lectured on documentary production at New York University, served as a juror for the News and Documentary Emmy Awards and writes for The Huffington Post. She has a B.A. in political science from Columbia College of Columbia University and a J.D. from Yeshiva University’s Benjamin Cardozo School of Law.
Director and Producer: Lara Stolman; Co-Producer: Ann Collins; Producer: Shanna Belott; Director of Photography: Laela Kilbourn; Composer: Mark Suozzo; Executive Producers for POV: Justine Nagan, Chris White