Michael “Mikey” McQuay Jr., Robert Justino and Kelvin Truong each have the lanky bodies and lean muscles that are hallmarks of champion swimmers. Star members of the Jersey Hammerheads swim team, the boys idolize Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, and are laser focused on the starting block and lightning fast in the water — earning medal upon medal in local, regional and statewide competitions near their New Jersey homes.
All three are also on the autism spectrum — a challenge that could make achieving their full athletic potential improbable. But these guys and their dozen-plus teammates have a pair of not-so-secret weapons: Mikey’s dauntless parents Maria and Michael McQuay. The couple founded the Hammerheads in response to their son’s affinity for water and lacking social and recreational opportunities in a community (and, frankly, a nation) that ignores the financial and emotional support special needs kids and their families desperately need.
New Jersey is especially hard-hit. One of every 26 newborn boys falls on the autism spectrum — the highest rate in the nation. So, child by child, parent by grateful parent, the Hammerheads took shape, asking nothing more from their families than to show up on time, work hard, support each other and believe. “Our parents are too busy spending money on evaluations and therapies,” Maria explains. “We do fundraising, and every year we make the cut. We get never have to ask the parents for a single dime.”
Filmmaker Lara Stolman discovered the McQuays while seeking swim lessons for her own child, having learned that drowning is a leading cause of death for children on the autism spectrum, who are instinctively drawn to water. “Coach Mike said to me, ‘This team is going to dominate the competition,’” Stolman marvels. “Nobody talks that way about children with autism and developmental disabilities. I was incredibly moved and inspired as a mom and as a filmmaker.”
The result is the deeply affecting Swim Team, part of PBS’ POV documentary series, which celebrates the boys’ exhilarating shared triumphs in the pool and spotlights the individual challenges the McQuay, Justino and Truong families face as they navigate life in their homes, communities and school systems.
Realizing Mikey would accomplish little if little was expected of him, the McQuays created a home in which Mikey’s strengths are fostered and “try” always swaps in for “can’t.” They brought that philosophy with them to the team. “There’s no pity when I coach these kids,” Michael says. “I want them to feel like I want the best out of them, and I want the parents to see that they can do something. Believe in your kid. Believe in your kid. Give me a shot. Right now, we’ve got seven swimmers swimming for elite swim clubs, YMCAs, going to nationals!”
His best success story? Mikey, a national medalist who also attends community college courses and relishes his part-time job at a zoo. Asked how many medals he’s earned in his career, the poised 21-year-old doesn’t miss a beat: “I lost count.”