The young men on the New Jersey Hammerheads swim team are just like any other group of dedicated athletes: hard working, determined and committed to their success.
Quiet, animal-loving Mikey is among the fastest on the team; ambitious co-captain Robbie dreams of one day out-swimming Michael Phelps; moody Kelvin is constantly caught between quitting the team and pursuing the sport he loves. The only difference between the Hammerheads and any other competitive swim team is that they all have some form of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or other form of special needs. This is because the Hammerheads, based in Perth Amboy, are a Special Olympics team.
So follows the documentary written and directed by Lara Stolman, screened on Monday in the Enyon Ballroom and sponsored by the College of Education, Rowan Athletics, Rowan Unified Sports and the Academic Success Center. The screening is part of a series of events scheduled to celebrate Access and Inclusion Week. Stolman followed the screening with a Q&A session about the making of the film.
According to Stolman, who had previously only worked on network broadcast television, the experience of shooting her own documentary was completely new.
“I’d never made an independent film before,” she said. “When I started, I wasn’t working for anybody but myself. I wasn’t hired to work for a studio to make the film. I decided that I needed to make the film myself, so as you can imagine it was very difficult to get support.”
In making “Swim Team,” Stolman took a large professional risk, one that she’s still recovering from financially. But, Stolman found the risk to be worth the personal fulfillment. Her inspiration for “Swim Team” came from a place close to home, as her own son has ASD. Drowning is the leading cause of death for children on the spectrum, and Stolman first met the Hammerheads while trying to equip her son with necessary swimming skills. According to the film, New Jersey has the highest concentration of ASD in the country; 1 in 26 boys in the state have received a formal diagnosis.
“You don’t make an independent film unless you’re very passionate about the story, because it’s just so difficult,” Stolman said. “And I was very passionate about this story. I’m a parent of a child with autism, so I understand the struggles that families like mine are going through. I was incredibly inspired by the people that I met who are in the film, and that’s why I decided to make it. They [on the swim team] just have an important message, and I thought it was important to help them spread it. It’s that you can’t give up on your children and we all have to have open minds about people with disabilities and not prejudge based on labels or behavior. Everyone has something to contribute. Everyone has something that they can do. Everyone should be able to follow their passion.”
This message is one of the things which Stolman hopes college students can take away from her film.
“It’s important to keep yourself open-minded about people,” Stolman said, “not to close yourself off and judge people because they have some sort of label or they’re different than you are.”
She also found special excitement in the presence of the Rowan University swim team.
“I’m so glad the swim team is here,” she said. “Swim teams tend to really respond to the story. It’s about a swim team — but not a swim team that they’ve ever seen before or encountered.”
“Swim Team” is currently available to students in the Campbell Library and is also streaming on Netflix.
Watch the trailer below:
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