‘When I’m swimming, I feel normal:’ A new documentary follows autistic teens in and out of the pool

The new documentary “Swim Team” tells the story of a mom and dad who start a swim team called the Hammerheads for their son and other autistic teenagers. The film was shot over three years and follows the lives of three members of the team–Mikey, Robbie, and Kelvin–and their families, both in and out of the pool.

KCRW talked to Lara Stolman, who  directed and produced “Swim Team.”

Lara Stolman: I myself have a son on the autism spectrum and swimming is so important for our kids. Drowning is actually the leading cause of death for children on the autism spectrum. So it was really important for my husband and I that my son learn how to swim and it’s not easy to find swimming or recreational activity in general when your kid is different, so I found myself driving further and further away from my house, checking out different programs and different folks and I found this incredible family. Coach Mike and his wife Maria and they were starting their own team and their son was on the spectrum and they were recruiting other families like theirs. I was just really struck by how positive they were and how they had such high expectations for the team. Coach Mike said to me, “This team is going to dominate the competition” and he was serious. He was serious and nobody talks that way about children with autism.

KCRW: And this team doesn’t just practice. They compete at the local, state and even the national level in the Special Olympics. Are there particular challenges for people on the spectrum when it comes to learning the kinds of skills needed to compete?

LS: Yes, and we definitely see that in the film. When they start off at the beginning of the film, there are a couple kids who don’t even know how to swim. That’s a big challenge. But there are other things, there are a range of kids on the team, from kids that don’t speak, to kids that do speak but have other kinds of challenges. There’s a character that has Tourette’s Syndrome as well as autism, and he blurts curse words and other taboo phrases, and it bothers some of the other kids on the team and disrupts the dynamic. There are all kinds of behavioral issues that need to be addressed, and every kid is different.

KCRW: In one particularly poignant moment when the Jersey Hammerheads have won a relay in competition, but then the team is disqualified because because one of the swimmers starts the wrong stroke.

LS: He swam the wrong stroke. He forgot what he was swimming. I think it’s probably something that typical kids and typical people on swim teams can relate to. It, unfortunately, just ruined it for the team for that particular race. They lost the gold medal.

KCRW: But it’s amazing to see the coach basically just pick up right from there and say “Hey, we’re not stopping. This is not holding us back.”

LS: Yeah, he’s really just the epitome of a great coach and a great dad, actually.

KCRW: The action unfolds over three years that are very seminal for these young men, out of the water as well. They are wrapping up high school in some cases, graduating, applying for first jobs or going onto new jobs. How did you see them grow over those three years? What role did you see the swimming play in their development?

LS: When I started, I didn’t really know that we were going to take it as far as we did, time wise. I know that they have the season, they have six months. So it was kind of like, “Oh, this is easy. We have a beginning, middle and end.” But then, we saw how important the team was to their lives, to the lives of the boys, to the lives of their families. I realized that this story is bigger than swimming, and we have to see how the swimming actually influences their lives, and how their success in the pool translates to “wins” out of the pool. How, in particular, the high expectations that the team had for them, that the coaches had for these kids, really became a self-fulfilling prophecy. So we figured out, “We got to keep shooting.” Suffice it to say, great things happen in these boys’ lives. We were just so pleased to be able to capture them and have them in the film.

You can find more on the film here.