Courtesy Woodland Park Productions
In the documentary Swim Team, athletes with autism find their way, both in and out of the pool.
Produced and directed by Lara Stolman ’91 with co-producer Shanna Belott ’91, Swim Team, which premiered last October on the film festival circuit, follows the Jersey Hammerheads, a competitive swim team whose 17 members, ages 8–22, all have Autism Spectrum Disorder. The film focuses on three teammates and their families: Mikey McQuay Jr., now 20; Robert “Robbie” Justino, now 20; and Kelvin Truong, now 25.
In their first season, 2014, the Hammerheads won an impressive 85 gold medals. Swim Team gives viewers an in-depth look at these athletes as they become strong, competitive swimmers, interact with the coaches and with one another, and experience exciting wins. The film combines the key ingredients of classic sports drama — the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat! — with a portrayal of the real-life daily challenges young people with autism and their families face.
“I’m not like other teenagers. I’m autistic,” says McQuay in the film’s opener. “When I’m swimming, I feel normal.” McQuay, now a student at Middlesex County College, competed in the 2014 Special Olympics USA National Games, nabbing two gold medals, one bronze and one silver. He and Justino continue to swim competitively on elite swim teams in New Jersey. Truong, who also has Tourette Syndrome, still swims with the Hammerheads and is enrolled in a job-training program sponsored by New Jersey State.
Stolman met McQuay’s parents, Mike and Maria, at the Perth Amboy, N.J., YMCA in fall 2013 while researching swimming lessons for her own children, now ages 7, 10 and 11. Doctors had informed the McQuays early on that their son would never walk or talk, but that did not stop them from challenging him to have a more fulfilling life. Their tenacity stuck with Stolman.
“These people were being told ‘no’ in so many ways from the time their children had been diagnosed as toddlers,” she says. “They were told ‘no,’ their kids couldn’t be in the regular class, ‘no’ they couldn’t keep up in Little League, ‘no,’ their kids would not go to college. And yet in creating this team, they were saying ‘yes,’ and I found it incredibly inspiring.”
Universal themes of hope and triumph drew Belott to the project. “As a mom, I could relate to the determination of these families to build a future for their kids,” says Belott, whose sons are now 3 and 5.
While Swim Team marks their first feature-length project together, Stolman and Belott’s partnership — and friendship — dates back to their time in Morningside.
As first-years, they were both in the fall musical, Anything Goes, and both took School of the Arts courses in film and the art of cinema. “I was thrilled to have the opportunity to take those courses and have access to the film school as an undergraduate. That was partly how I was able to find my passion in film,” says Stolman, who majored in political science. Belott, who majored in English and American history, grew up in Los Angeles and had a strong interest in musical theater and journalism.
But it was their time at Columbia University Television (CTV) that cemented their bond. Belott and Stolman were the creators, writers and producers of Cinema Catch-Up, a comedic send-up of Siskel & Ebert’s movie review show. It aired regularly during the 1990–91 academic year on CTV and public access television.
Those Columbia connections were just as strong for Swim Team. Several undergraduates worked on the film as interns, organizing a focus group and helping during the rough-cut stage. Mark Suozzo ’75, who composed the score, describes Stolman as a “great leader” and her work on the film as “thoughtful” and “articulate.” “It was a pleasure working with them,” says Suozzo, who has composed scores for films such as Barcelona, American Splendor and The Nanny Diaries and is music associate professor and co-director of the program in Scoring for Film and Multimedia at NYU Steinhardt.
After graduation, Belott and Stolman headed west. “We wanted to stay in New York City but we knew the business was in L.A.,” says Belott. After living in L.A. for a year, Stolman, who was born in Canada but was primarily raised in New Jersey, moved back east a few months before Belott did.
From there, the pair cultivated careers in film and TV, working separately for NBC, HBO and 20th Century Fox and then together at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Stolman carved a niche in news and documentary, and Belott built a career in producing, writing and social entrepreneurship.
Stolman and Belott worked on Swim Team from 2013 to 2016. The film has already won a number of awards, including Best documentary over 60 minutes (2017 Picture this … film festival), Spa City Best Sports Documentary (2016 Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival) and Best New Jersey Film & Audience Choice Feature (2016 Monmouth Film Festival). Swim Team was also rated one of the top 10 films of the year in the 2016 IndieWire Critics Poll, for Best Undistributed Film. Funding came from private donations and grants, including the Loreen Arbus Disability Awareness Grant from New York Women in Film & Television and a grant from The Karma Foundation, in New Jersey. In post-production, Stolman and Belott were commissioned by The New York Times to produce a short film, which focused on Justino’s story, for its website. That gave Swim Team a bit of media buzz well ahead of its debut.
Central to the film project is a national screening and social impact campaign to kick off in April, for Autism Awareness Month. With Easterseals as a partner, Belott and Stolman are making the film available for screenings at Easterseals affiliates and with other organizations nationwide. They continue to promote autism awareness and spread word about the film via social media and traditional media, inviting the wider community to host its own screenings (anyone can host a screening: swimteamthefilm.com).
The two are also preparing for a theatrical release later this year and an eventual television broadcast. More festival screenings are already lined up, including this March at SXSWedu Conference & Festival in Austin and ReelAbilities: New York, the largest festival for films by and about people with disabilities.
“The next chapter is really focused on getting [the film] out there and using it as a mobilizing force to activate more awareness and opportunity for inclusion and community,” says Belott.
“We want to change people’s perceptions,” says Stolman. Adds Belott, “That’s what 2017 is all about.”
Melanie A. Farmer is a freelance writer and editor who has written for CNET News, DiversityInc and CBS’ MarketWatch. She is the former editor of Columbia Engineering, the school’s semi-annual alumni publication.