January 22, 2018 – This documentary film about a team of swimmers with autism spectrum disorder is an illuminating tale of triumph and setbacks. These young men and their parents struggle to help them achieve recognition, acceptance, and independence in life. This movie made me feel a tiny measure of the pride these parents feel about the accomplishments of their children.
First of all, what surprised me is about these guys on the Hammerheads swim team of Middlesex County, New Jersey. They are disabled, but they are very fast in the water. They are faster than most swimmers. Several of them successfully compete in top level high school swim meets. One of them, Mike McQuay Jr., wins two golds, one silver and one bronze medal in the national Special Olympics competition.
Mike's father, Mike McQuay senior sums up the family's long journey to his swimming success, saying, “He was never supposed to talk, write his name, swim. Here it is 11 years later, and look what he is doing.” His mother says, “I always had visions of him staying with me. But seeing him progress and doing what he is doing ... now I'm second thinking this ... This kid has a future. He is going to do what he wants. He can do it.”
Another aspect of this long journey is revealed when Mike's father said, “There's not a day goes by that my wife and I don't go through something with him.” A recent example: He and his wife found Mike crying in his room. When they asked why he was crying, their son replied, “Why did God make me different? ... Why am I autistic? What did I do wrong?”
With tears in their eyes, they replied, “Because you're special. God made you special, and that's why you're different. Not every kid can be special.” Mike paused and said ... “He was good with that, and that was the truth. He is special.” I never really understood the meaning of the word special in Special Olympics until I heard that.
Another member of the Hammerheads, Kelvin, is not only autistic, but he also has Tourette Syndrome and anger management issues. His mother shows places in the home where Kelvin, in fits of anger, has punched holes in doors and walls. Kelvin's parents talk about how difficult it is to take their son into public places because of his tics, which include involuntary outbursts of profanity. The more nervous he gets around other people, the worse it gets.
In yet another emotional scene, the mother of another swim team member, Robert, is told by his mother that the reason he is different from the other kids in school is because he is autistic. He is troubled by this conversation. She says Robert was diagnosed as autistic at age 18 months. She dropped out of college to raise him.
The sacrifices made by the parents of these people on the swim team are substantial. Some parents talk wistfully about special schools with educational programs tailored to individual students. These schools are expensive, available only to wealthy parents. These parents are not rich, but they are dedicated. Mike and Maria McQuay founded the Jersey Hammerheads because without the swim team their son, and others like him might not have had competitive swimming opportunities. They both spend a lot of time coaching the swim team and raising money for it.
In one scene, a swim team member is late for competition and Mike is afraid the whole team will be unable to compete because of it. His frustration grows when one swimmer in the relay forgets which stroke he is supposed to do and the whole relay team is disqualified because of it. “This just keeps getting better and better,” he says.
In our society, we celebrate heroes, like soldiers, firemen, police, sports figures. To me, the real heroes are parents like the ones in this movie, some are single mothers, sacrificing, struggling, going above and beyond, out of love for their children. These are heroes who deserve to be celebrated, along with their children who succeed, despite indifference from most of society, and against the odds. This movie celebrates these heroes. It rates a B.
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