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Review: In ‘Swim Team,’ Autism Is No Barrier to Competition


Mikey McQuay and his father, Michael, the coach of the Jersey Hammerheads, in “Swim Team.”

Nicole Chan/Argot Films

Autistic children typically don’t have an easy time learning to swim. “Every kid in the pool is different,” notes Michael McQuay, the coach of a youth team in Perth Amboy, N.J. Some have sensory issues with touch and sound. That’s all the more reason to have the Jersey Hammerheads, the Special Olympics swimming team Mr. McQuay founded with his wife, Maria, inspired by Mikey, their son.

Mikey, one of the Hammerheads’ stars, is among the three principal subjects of “Swim Team,” a documentary by Lara Stolman. (An excerpt from the movie appeared on The New York Times’s website in 2015.) The others are Robbie, who says he aspires to be faster than Michael Phelps, and Kelvin, who has Tourette’s syndrome in addition to autism.

Made over the course of two years, the documentary follows the challenges they face, both personally and as a group. (We’ll avoid spoiling which one went on to compete nationally and which one became captain of his high school swim team.) The movie also trails their parents, who raise their children — mostly teenagers — without a rule book, at times feeling isolated themselves, but finding camaraderie in one another. Near the end, Mr. McQuay says he believes that having an autistic son made him a more attentive father.

Issue documentaries often struggle to come across as movies, not simply as informational tools. At its most effective, “Swim Team” treats its subjects as would any sports movie attuned to character and drama. There is real suspense when Robbie runs late for a meet, risking setting back his entire team.

Later, Maria and Michael believe that the Hammerheads have come in first at a meet and are upset to see them receive only participation medals. (They soon realize that they lost the gold because one of the team’s members — not among the three profiled — earned a disqualification for starting a race with the wrong stroke.)


Trailer: ‘Swim Team’

A preview of the film.

By WOODLAND PARK PRODUCTIONS on Publish Date July 6, 2017.

Image courtesy of Internet Video Archive.

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Elsewhere, “Swim Team” deals more specifically with autism. Maria and Michael meet with a lawyer to determine whether they should seek guardianship of Mikey, who at 18 would otherwise be regarded as an adult by New Jersey. In an uncomfortably candid conversation, Robbie’s mother sits down to explain to him that he’s autistic, something he doesn’t already know. (“Do you see yourself different from the regular kids in school?” she asks.)

While watching “Swim Team,” it’s worth remembering that even the smallest documentary crews aren’t invisible. Kelvin’s mother tells us that he becomes nervous in public places when people stare at him. Sure enough, there are gawkers when they shop at a Goodwill store. In fairness to the onlookers, some may not be staring because of Kelvin’s tics, but because Kelvin is being filmed — hardly an everyday occurrence.

But “Swim Team” mostly aims to educate and inspire; on those counts, it succeeds.

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