"Swim Team" chronicles the trials of a competitive swim team made up of young adults and teens on the autism spectrum.
Nicole Chan "Swim Team" chronicles the trials of a competitive swim team made up of young adults and teens on the autism spectrum.

“Swim Team” was recently named Best Documentary at the 1st Annual AutFest International Film Festival, an event that celebrates films promoting autism awareness. This is director Lara Stolman’s first feature documentary.

In the spotlight are the Jersey Hammerheads, a Special Olympics swim team in New Jersey made up of athletes who have all been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. While the condition is different for every person who has it, it often is characterized by difficulties in communication and social interaction, as well as repetitive behaviors. According to the film, New Jersey has the highest rate of autism in the United States, with one in 26 boys on the spectrum.

The film specifically focuses on three team members and their families: Kelvin Truong, Robert Justino and Michael McQuay, Jr., whose parents, Maria and Michael McQuay, Sr., co-founded the Hammerheads. The cameras follow the athletes as they train and compete in several swim meets leading up to the Summer Games, where they go head-to-head against other special swim teams across the state.

As the story unfolds viewers get an inside look at the challenges faced by children with autism, as well as their parents. It showcases how swimming has given a sense of purpose, pride and camaraderie to young men who have endured isolation from their peers. “I’m not like other teenagers — I’m autistic,” Michael McQuay, Jr. said in the film. “When I’m swimming I feel normal. It feels amazing when I swim.”

Truong, who also suffers from Tourette syndrome, even experienced a reduction in violent outbursts, as well as physical and verbal tics, through his participation in competitive swimming — a result that could not be achieved by any combination or dosage of medications, his parents said.

The inspiring film captures the important role that swimming can play in a person’s life, while acknowledging that there are still many more hurdles that these athletes will have to overcome in the future. A theatrical release is scheduled for New York and Los Angeles in July, and the documentary is on the roster for the upcoming season of PBS' POV — a showcase for independent non-fiction films.