This weekend, Special Olympics Wisconsin is a community partner for the critically-acclaimed documentary Swim Team in the Milwaukee Film Festival. The film follows a thrilling season of Special Olympics New Jersey’s Hammerheads, a competitive team composed of athletes with autism. The film has screened in dozens of film festivals around the world since it debuted last year. Screenings of the film in the Milwaukee Film Festival will be Friday, September 29 at 3:30 pm and Saturday, September 30 at 6:00 pm. Several of SOWI’s own swim team for the 2018 USA Games will be in attendance. Tickets are still available!
The director and producer of the film, Lara Stolman, was kind enough to answer a few questions regarding the film and what it’s meant to her to bring the story of the Hammerheads and Special Olympics to so many audiences around the world.
SOWI: I know you mentioned previously that you had the idea for this film when you met Coach Mike and the Hammerheads while looking for swimming opportunities for your son. Was there a moment you recall where you thought, “I have to capture this in a documentary!”?
Lara Stolman (LS): When Coach Mike said his new team (that he was forming at the time) would “dominate the competition,” I was hooked. No one speaks that way about kids with disabilities. He seemed such the quintessential coach, oozing with inspiration and with such high expectations. I just thought we all want our kids to have a coach like Coach Mike but kids with disabilities are rarely given that opportunity. I was very interested in how the kids on the team would respond to Coach Mike. These are kids that many people have, unfortunately, given up on. But to hear him talk like this was a team of typical kids, that’s what made me think about how this needs to be a film.
“Some kids couldn’t swim at all when I met them and not only did they learn to swim, but they learned how to win. It was so inspiring for me as a mother to see what’s possible when you have high expectations for your child and follow through.”
SOWI: What were your initial thoughts on the Special Olympics community when you encountered it during your search for swimming opportunities?
LS: I really didn’t know much about Special Olympics and didn’t realize it was available to people on the autism spectrum.
SOWI: How did you approach the parents of the athletes with the documentary idea and how did they initially respond? Were there some that needed extra convincing or were they all on board right away?
LS: I was very fortunate in that Coach Mike and his wife Maria, who were running the team together, were both very interested in my filming their first season. They helped me get the other families on board. I did call everyone and tried to visit them all at home. The process of gaining their trust and ultimately the access I needed for filming took a few months and not everyone was sold initially but ultimately everyone came on board.
SOWI: Given your long and successful career in film with NBC, AMC, TLC, and the like, what made you decide that this would be your first independent production?
LS: I felt really strongly that this was a film I absolutely had to make. I don’t think it would have gotten made without that conviction and passion. It was just too much work and at the beginning I had no support, I was truly independent and self-funded to get started. It was risky and yet my drive to make the film was coupled with faith that it would in fact succeed. I believed in the characters and I knew I had the experience to pull it off. But it was a leap of faith of course. And fortunately it worked out.
“I hope viewers are inspired by the film but I hope it also spurs people to think about ways they can be more inclusive in their hometowns. Individuals with autism and developmental disabilities have so much to offer if given the chance and support they need.”
SOWI: Once you decided to film the season, was it difficult to do in terms of access, logistics, scheduling and other production concerns? How long was the shoot?
LS: It was definitely a project to get the permission and cooperation we needed from the swimming facilities, the Special Olympics folks, the various schools and other locations where we shot as well as figuring out who and what we were shooting when. But this is all very much what I had been doing as a producer/ director prior to working on Swim Team so I was pretty comfortable with the process and the challenges inherent. We filmed from January, 2014 through the summer of 2015 but most of the filming was during the Hammerheads’ first season, January to June of 2014.
SOWI: Was it difficult to wrap the film and no longer follow around these amazing young men and their families? How much of a bond did you form after documenting their lives so intimately?
LS: I feel as if I became part of this team and the great thing is even though I am no longer filming, I am still working on promoting and distributing the film so I am still in touch with the cast. I am closest still with the McQuay family. They have been the most involved in our screening and promoting the film and they participate with me at Q&As and press interviews. We talk on the phone several times a week and see each other at least once a month. I am still in touch with Kelvin and Robert and their families as well.
SOWI: At what point in this process did you realize this film had struck such a nerve and would not only have such an impact but also do so well in the festival circuit and with critics?
LS: Early on, after we had completed most of the filming but before we had edited, we shared a sample with The New York Times. They were really excited about it and commissioned me to create a short film based on one of the characters, Robert. The short film ran on The New York Times’ website in April, 2015 and that created a lot of buzz and interest that propelled us forward.
SOWI: What was the most rewarding part of your shoot?
LS: What was so rewarding for me working on this film, was the chance to get to know the kids on the team and their families and witness their incredible progress in and out of the pool over the course of a year. Some kids couldn’t swim at all when I met them and not only did they learn to swim, but they learned how to win. It was so inspiring for me as a mother to see what’s possible when you have high expectations for your child and follow through.
SOWI: What was the most surprising or unexpected thing to come out of making this film?
LS: I didn’t expect the film itself to impact the boys’ lives positively but that’s what’s happening and it’s really really wonderful. Mikey met his girlfriend at a screening – she fell for him watching him in the film and then got to meet him in person and sparks flew. Kelvin has changed his attitude about going out in public and not only comes to screenings and participates in Q&As but went with his family on a family vacation for the first time in years last summer.
SOWI: What do you hope a viewer takes away from your film?
LS: I hope viewers are inspired by the film but I hope it also spurs people to think about ways they can be more inclusive in their hometowns. Individuals with autism and developmental disabilities have so much to offer if given the chance and support they need. We need to be more open to including these folks in public school, sports employment and community life.
SOWI: What’s next for you as a filmmaker?
LS: I’ve been busy actually touring with Swim Team and speaking alongside the showing of the film. It’s been a wonderful experience to connect with audiences and share the story of making the film. Anyone can host a screening. Just visit www.swimteamthefilm.com and click on HOST A SCREENING to find out more. We’ve had a number of swim teams charge for tickets and raise money for their teams by doing this.